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Former governor files libel suit against media outlet

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(The Center Square) — Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant filed a libel lawsuit this week against the nonprofit owner of Mississippi Today and CEO Mary Margaret White.

The lawsuit filed in Madison County Circuit Court on Wednesday alleges that Mississippi Today’s reporters and White “have defamed him as part of a malicious and concerted effort to damage his reputation and business interests with a steady stream of lies, baseless speculation, and irresponsible innuendo” by saying he was the central figure in a scandal involving misappropriation of $77 million in welfare funds intended for the poor.

In a statement, his legal team from McCraney Montagnet Quin & Noble said “Governor Bryant believes he has been libeled by Mississippi Today. He is confident in the suit he has brought and, through his attorneys, will convince 12 residents of Madison County of just that.”

The two-term former Republican governor is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, plus legal fees.

White apologized for her publication accusing Bryant of a crime in a note posted on May 17. Bryant’s attorneys said that it fell short of a retraction.

“White did not recant or disavow her slanderous claim that Mississippi Today broke the story of Bryant embezzling $77 million of welfare funds,” the lawsuit reads. “On the contrary, White’s non-apology-apology reinforced her claim and implied that criminal prosecutors refuse to prosecute Bryant for embezzlement.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has indicted Ted DiBiase Jr., former Mississippi Department of Human Services executive director John Davis, Christi Webb, Nancy New, and others. The DOJ says they fraudulently directed $77 million in funds from the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for their own purposes. Included were a new volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi, trips to rehab in Malibu, California, and personal cars and trucks.

Mississippi Today was founded in 2016, and bills itself as “a statehouse watchdog,” and “the only fully staffed, member-supported, digital-first, nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom serving Mississippi and meeting the information needs of communities across the state.”

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