2023 Winner, Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting

The Backchannel

Reporter Anna Wolfe read a startling statistic published in a 2017 report: Mississippi, the most impoverished state in the nation, was approving just 1.5% of families applying for cash welfare assistance. That statistic sent Wolfe looking for where the state was sending the federal funds, if not to families who needed them. Over the next five years, Wolfe submitted more than 80 public records requests and faced repeated stonewalling from government officials and agencies. Through the challenging reporting process, she discovered that the state was funneling tens of millions-worth of welfare grants through two nonprofits under the guise of former Gov. Phil Bryant’s nebulous anti-poverty program called Families First for Mississippi, which refused to provide direct aid, instead leading needy families down dead ends. After the arrests of state welfare agency and nonprofit officials for embezzlement, Wolfe’s reporting didn’t stop: Through private text messages that officials have concealed from the public, Wolfe uncovered corruption and influence peddling extending all the way to Bryant and former NFL legend Brett Favre. Bryant admitted to many of the report’s findings in a rare on-the-record interview. Multiple defendants have since come forward with allegations against Bryant or have relied on the reporting in court filings that insist Bryant be held accountable. Congressman Bennie Thompson and the NAACP president urged the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Justice to investigate Bryant’s otherwise ignored role in the scandal, and Thompson has vowed to hold congressional hearings. State lawmakers, citing the investigation, held multiple hearings about how the state could better spend its welfare grants. Several legislators filed bills in early 2023 to reform the welfare agency’s management and oversight over federal funds. Meanwhile, federal criminal investigations into the scandal continue. 

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