Thu. Oct 6th, 2022

Aug. 16—JACKSON — A Northeast Mississippi attorney is attempting a legal maneuver to force more scrutiny onto a decision by Gov. Tate Reeves and the state welfare agency to cut ties with Brad Pigott, the attorney who was until July attempting to retrieve millions in allegedly misspent and wasted federal aid dollars for the poor.

On Monday, attorney Jim Waide filed a motion in Hinds County Circuit Court requesting a court hearing to determine whether Reeves unlawfully ordered Pigott’s removal from the civil litigation he had been carrying out on the state’s behalf.

The motion suggests that Reeves removed Pigott out of self-interest.

“It is an abuse of power for Governor Reeves to frustrate a state agency’s collecting monies owed it in order to protect his financial supporters,” Waide wrote in Monday’s filing with the court.

Waide represents Austin Smith, who is the nephew of John Davis. Davis is the former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services and is facing criminal charges that he wrongfully used money from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for his own gain and the gain of others, including Nancy New, the head of an educational nonprofit.

The ongoing civil litigation — which is separate from the criminal cases — targets Davis and New, both of whom have been criminally charged. The civil litigation also targets a wider pool of people, including Smith, who have not been criminally charged but did receive TANF money through various grants and independent contractor arrangements.

The Tupelo-based nonprofit Family Resource Center is among the civil defendants, and paid Smith some of the money that he allegedly should not have received.

Pigott was initially hired by MDHS last year, but was removed in July and will likely be replaced by the Jackson-based Jones Walker law firm.

Waide cites several reasons to believe that the role of Reeves in Pigott’s removal from the case merits further scrutiny. The state has not yet responded with its own arguments to the contrary.

According to state law, the Attorney General’s Office has authority over litigation brought by state agencies and Waide believes that the sitting governor may have wrongfully intruded onto these responsibilities.

Reeves has said that he signed off on MDHS cutting ties with Pigott because he believed the former prosecutor was more concerned with “the political side of things” instead of concentrating his resources on the civil litigation.

“(Pigott) seemed much more interested in getting his name in print — and hopefully bigger and bigger print — not just Mississippi stories,” Reeves previously said.

Waide directly suggests that Reeves may be seeking to insulate himself and other politically-connected individuals from themselves facing civil litigation.

In June, Waide on behalf of Smith, filed a motion alleging that if Smith was to be the target of litigation, other defendants must be named as well, including former Gov. Phil Bryant and the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation.

The next month, Pigott issued a subpoena seeking communication between Bryant and the USM Athletic Foundation. State officials have acknowledged that this subpoena ultimately prompted the decision to end Pigott’s involvement in the litigation.

The governor has also said Pigott should not have sought the communications involving the athletic foundation and the former governor because the foundation was not tagged in a forensic audit report commissioned by the state as fraudulently misspending money.

But the audit report that Reeves referenced itself noted that it was severely limited in its scope and what it could examine.

In his motion, Waide heavily cites the reporting of Mississippi Today, including a recent article that said Davis, the former MDHS director, funneled money to the fitness instructor Paul Lacoste in an effort to please Reeves, who was lieutenant governor at the time.

In text messages obtained by Mississippi Today, Lacoste bragged about his links to Reeves in conversations with Davis.

“I told Tate and Senator Josh Harkins this week at training to fully fund you or I would make them pay for it at training,” Lacoste wrote to Davis in a February 2019 text, according to Mississippi Today. “They told me…”oh, we are taking care of John.””

The state intends to contract with the firm of Jones Walker to replace Pigott. The legal contract will be before the Mississippi State Personnel Board for its approval on Thursday. If the board approves of the contract, then the state is free to officially hire the firm.

No attorneys for that firm have yet filed any motion to formally associate themselves with the case and the state has yet to make a response to the claims of Waide.

The decision from the state’s elected leaders to terminate its contract with Pigott is causing significant delays in the litigation.

An employee with the Attorney General’s Office earlier this month said that since the state decided to part ways with Pigott, depositions that were scheduled to take place later in August are now on hold.

The depositions, which would have been the first time that people accused of misspending tax dollars were questioned about their past actions, have not been rescheduled.

Nancy and Zach New, two defendants in the litigation, filed a motion to reschedule a public hearing on a motion to pause the civil proceedings. The hearing was slated to take place on Wednesday, but the News are asking the court to postpone the hearing until January 2023.

In their motion, the News claim that attorneys for MDHS contacted them in early August to ask them to reschedule the hearing “to afford MDHS additional time to secure outside counsel.”

The defendants initially tried to secure a hearing date in November, but the court, according to the legal documents, told the parties that January 2023 would be a more suitable date.

caleb.bedillion@djournal.com

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