A local newspaper that exposed a widespread public corruption scandal filed its first defense in a lawsuit for defamation brought by the former Mississippi governor. The news outlet claims it was protected by the constitution in its speech against former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.
Attorney Henry Laird laid out 19 legal defenses to Bryant’s claims in Mississippi Today’s response, the first since Bryant filed a lawsuit against the publication and its CEO on July 26 in Madison County Circuit Court for allegedly defaming Bryant in public comments about the misappropriation of $77 millions of federal welfare funds.
The lawyer also asked that the complaint of the former governor be dismissed.
Mary Margaret White, CEO of Mississippi Today, said in a press release that “we will vigorously defend the case and assure the people of Mississippi the press will never be intimidated.” “We support press freedom and we will always maintain our mission to build a more informed Mississippi.”
Mississippi Today’s legal defence is based on New York Times Co. Sullivan. was a 1964 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court severely limited the ability of government officials to sue over defamation. The ruling stated that news organizations are protected from libel judgements unless they can prove that they acted with “actual malice”, knowing that the information was false, or with a “reckless” disregard to whether it was true.
Bryant’s lawsuit on July 26 came less than two months after Mississippi Today, and its reporter, Anna Wolfe won the Pulitzer Prize. Wolfe had covered the misappropriation of welfare funds meant for poor Mississippians, but which were diverted instead to the wealthy and powerful.
The state’s Human Services Department, according to prosecutors, gave money to non-profit organizations who spent it on projects like a $5,000,000 volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi – a project that retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre had agreed to fundraise for.
In February 2020, Mississippi Auditor Shad white announced that criminal charges had been brought against six individuals, including John Davis. Davis was a former executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, who Bryant had selected. The announcement was made a few weeks after Bryant’s second and final term in office as governor. Davis and other defendants have pleaded guilt.
Wolfe’s series “The Backchannel”, which won a Pulitzer Prize in May, shed light on this embezzlement plan. In an article on Mississippi Today, the publication announced the award. It revealed that Bryant used his office to direct the spending of millions in federal welfare dollars to “benefit [his] family and friends.”
Bryant’s lawsuit is also centered on comments White made at a journalism conference that, according to William Quin II, Bryant’s attorney, misrepresented Bryant’s connection with the blown welfare dollars. Bryant also claims that White’s comments at a journalism convention misrepresented Bryant as a person who was involved in the welfare money squandered, according to William Quin II, Bryant’s attorney.
Bryant claimed in a letter dated May 11, that White had made a “false” and “defamatory” claim about him at a February journalism conference when she stated Mississippi Today had broken the story that Bryant ’embezzled’ welfare money. Bryant has not been charged with a crime, but he claims to have informed the auditor about the possible misappropriation of money under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Quin, when reached by phone on Monday, said that Mississippi Today’s response speaks for itself and declined to provide further comment.
Quin, in an amended complaint filed August 24, listed nine clients who were not named and from whom Quin claims Bryant has lost nearly $500,000 of business because White’s remarks at the Knight Media Forum took place in February. Bryant began working for a private consultancy shortly after leaving office.
Mississippi Today published a letter of apology in May from White, one week after Bryant had threatened to sue. However, his lawyers have said that the apology was not specific enough.
Favre has also not been charged criminally, but Mississippi Department of Human Services with a newly appointed director filed a civil suit against him last year, along with over three dozen other individuals and businesses to recover the more than 20 million dollars of misappropriated welfare money.
Nancy New, a former head of a nonprofit organization who pleaded to charges in April 2022 that she misappropriated welfare money, is one of the defendants.
Gerald and Carroll Bufkin filed a motion on Friday to quash the subpoena issued by Bryant. This was the same day Mississippi Today responded to Bryant’s suit. The Bufkins stated that Bryant’s request for documents is intended to be relevant to the defamation lawsuit he has filed.
They argued that Bryant, as a public person, must prove Mississippi Today and White had “actual malice” in their actions when they made the allegedly defamatory remarks, referring to New York Times Company. v. Sullivan legal standard. They argued that the former governor had “no legitimate basis” to believe his subpoena would reveal relevant information.