What should we believe about Phil Bryant in light of recent revelations about his past ties to a speculative pharmaceutical venture that auditors claim illegally received more than $2 million in welfare money?
Reading the investigative reporting of Mississippi Today and the partial transcript of an interview the former Mississippi governor gave to the news outlet two days before its bombshell story broke, there are two conclusions one can draw.
Either Bryant was in on an effort to divert welfare funding to purposes for which it was not intended, with the hopes of later cashing in personally.
Or Bryant was one of the more distracted and naive governors to ever occupy the office.
He would like us to believe the latter.
If we give him that benefit of the doubt, this is what we have to swallow:
- That Bryant was so busy he didn’t read closely all the text messages he received from his buddy, former NFL great Brett Favre, or Favre’s business partner, Jake Vanlandingham, the Florida neuroscientist who believed he had developed a drug to treat concussions.
Even though Favre told Bryant in a text that the drug company, Prevacus, had received state funding, the former governor claims the information did not register with him until after the indictments came down a year later against his disgraced former welfare agency head, John Davis, and Nancy New, the Greenwood native to whose nonprofit organization Davis directed tens of millions of dollars.
Nor did it strike him as odd that Vanlandingham was thanking the governor for connecting him with Davis and New, since Bryant claims he made no effort to put the three of them together.
- That Bryant, despite previously serving more than 11 years as state auditor catching crooked public officials, believed that people around him, including those with control over boatloads of government money, would do the right thing and that internal controls would deter them from any scheme to do otherwise.
- That it would have been impolite for Bryant to have suggested to Favre and Vanlandingham that their desire to reward him stock in Prevacus might be construed by some as a bribe, even if they waited to make the gift until after his term in office ended.
Bryant claims he never had any intention of accepting the stock, that he knew it would look improper for him to do so. Curiously, though, he waited until after the indictments against Davis, New and others came down to cut his ties with the company.
What’s also curious is how State Auditor Shad White, who initially got the job via an appointment by Bryant, never bothered to mention, in all the publicity after the scandal broke, that the former governor was at least peripherally connected to the mess.
According to Mississippi Today, the text messages on which its exposé is based had been in the possession of the State Auditor’s Office for more than two years. Yet, Bryant’s name does not appear in White’s 104-page report describing in detail the allegedly massive embezzlement that occurred on the former governor’s watch, other than a line crediting Bryant with alerting the auditor’s office to the potential fraud.
White contributed to an early narrative that made Bryant appear like some hero, when the auditor would have known that the former governor was terribly lax in his oversight of Davis and possibly an enabler to the misspending.
White, under court rules, is not talking about the case these days, but when he was, he sounded like Bryant’s defender, saying it would be unreasonable to expect a governor to know all the regulations about how public money can or can’t be spent. That’s what executive branch underlings are for, the auditor suggested.
A better defense came from Bryant himself during that three-hour interview with Anna Wolfe, the Mississippi Today reporter who grilled him over the contradictions between what he now claims and what he wrote in text messages to Favre and Vanlandingham.
“Well it does not make sense,” the former governor said, “that if I thought I was doing something wrong — and that would have been wrong, if they had gotten state money and I had realized it — to call the auditor in and begin an investigation and then at the same time carry on this nefarious affair. You see how conflicting that would be? And then bring in the FBI agent to run the (welfare) agency? Why on earth would I do that?”
Or, he asked, why would he be tempted by a speculative company’s stock offer that had little current value and was a longshot to ever be worth much? “So I’m going to put a 30-year history of public service on the line for some stock that’s worth, not worth anything? Why would I do that?”
Good questions. Why would anyone do something so dumb?
This, though, was not a scandal of geniuses. There’s a lot of stupidity that occurred, including some of those text messages that Bryant is having a hard time explaining.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.