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Home » Investigation into welfare money steered to Brett Favre wins Pulitzer for Mississippi Today reporter

Investigation into welfare money steered to Brett Favre wins Pulitzer for Mississippi Today reporter

Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today won a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for an investigative series that uncovered new evidence into the extent of former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s involvement in the state’s massive $77 million welfare scandal.

This is the first Pulitzer Prize for the nonprofit digital newsroom, which has already won several national awards in recent years. Mississippi Today was launched in 2016 as a statehouse watchdog. In Mississippi Today’s writeup of the launch, founder Andrew Lack (and former NBC News chairman) was quoted as saying he and those involved in the project “have great aspirations for Mississippi’s future, and believe that competitive, world-class journalism is an essential piece of that puzzle.”

“The Backchannel” – as Wolfe’s series is called – revealed how Bryant used his office and influence to exploit an already troubled welfare system for personal business. Bryant was Mississippi’s governor from 2012 to 2020.

This scheme wasn’t confined to a rogue government employee forging checks,” Wolfe wrote in the series’ introduction. “It was the inevitable outcome inside a public assistance office that had distorted its supposed mission to uplift people in poverty, while throwing tens of millions of welfare dollars at pie-in-the-sky plans with virtually no oversight. The diversion of the funds away from the needy happened largely through sanctioned government processes — whether by the state agency or a private nonprofit — and in many cases with permission and in broad daylight.”

In the official announcement, Marjorie Miller – the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes – said Wolfe’s reporting “revealed how a former Mississippi governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre.”

Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today, described the Pulitzer as an honor and said it’s hard to put in words what this means to the newsroom and to the state.

“I’m very aware of the importance of this moment for us and for Anna and for me, and it’s the top of the mountain for any journalist in America,” Ganucheau told Poynter in a phone call after the announcement was made. “So for us to have done this at little ol’ Mississippi Today… we have scrapped our way through the startup phase just a little bit more than seven years ago in early 2016, to building up the largest newsroom in the state, to having some, I think, real impact in our reporting on Mississippi – a state that really desperately needs that reporting. It is just an honor.”

Wolfe’s investigation, published in April 2022, was the culmination of thousands of emails and agency documents obtained through more than 80 public records requests, thousands of pages of text messages between some of the scandal’s key players, and dozens of interviews. 

Each story covered a different facet of Bryant’s entanglements. In the first installment, Wolfe broke down how Bryant used his connections to help his friend Favre boost a biomedical startup. Prosecutors now say the deal Favre made with Bryant’s welfare officials was stolen from a program meant to serve Mississippi’s poorest residents. The series was a tenacious follow-up to Wolfe’s already-dogged reporting on the state’s spending of federal welfare funds.

A native of Tacoma, Washington, the 28-year-old Wolfe has earned multiple awards for her investigative reporting, including most recently the 2023 Nellie Bly Award for Investigative Reporting and the 2023 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.

Speaking in Mississippi Today’s writeup Monday of the Pulitzer win, Wolfe focused on the Mississippians she has reported on. “This award not only recognizes underdog reporting in an under-resourced part of the country,” Wolfe said in the story. “It says to Mississippians who have long been subjected to systemic government corruption that their experiences are valid and they deserve better.”

Ganucheau – who became editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today in 2020, said what became “The Backchannel” was the result of more than five years of reporting by Wolfe. According to Ganucheau, some of Wolfe’s early reporting in the state focused on health care. “She started seeing that every health care story she was writing about, the problems have been exacerbated by poverty,” he said. “And Mississippi is the poorest state in the country by any number of measures.” Ganucheau said it was Wolfe’s idea to build a poverty beat at Mississippi Today. She was hired in 2017.

“She got to know Mississippians. She got to see their stories, hear their stories, and tell them. The people who are struggling, who need help the most, weren’t really getting that help,” he said. “That’s what she saw immediately in 2017 when she started doing this work. And so she asked the question: ‘If Mississippi isn’t helping these people with these federal funds that are designated to help them, how is the state instead spending the money?’ That was a question she first started asking in 2017.”

The series brought ripples of impact. Days after the investigation was published, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on April 7, asking for a Department of Justice investigation into Bryant’s influence. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson did the same. Ganucheau said there were also hearings held as a result of Wolfe’s reporting.

But perhaps the biggest impact of Wolfe’s reporting was the ability to engage everyday Mississippians, Ganucheau said. He said you could not visit the state and find anyone who doesn’t know something about the former governor’s or Favre’s involvement in the welfare scandal. 

“The impact that we’ve seen from everyday Mississippians is just incredible,” he said. “It’s shocking, blatant corruption that Anna was able to expose single-handedly, and we’re just so proud of that.”

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