TUPELO • FBI agents questioned state Sen. Chad McMahan about a meeting that involved former Gov. Phil Bryant and former state agency leader John Davis, according to the Northeast Mississippi lawmaker.
McMahan, R-Guntown, told the Daily Journal that the federal law enforcement agency asked him about a meeting in late 2018 or early 2019 at which the Lee County lawmaker advocated for state officials to send extra funding to the Autism Center of North Mississippi. The interview with the FBI took place around three years ago, McMahan said.
“(The FBI) asked me about the $75,000 grant and the meeting with Gov. Bryant and John Davis,” McMahan said.
McMahan, who has served in the Legislature since 2016, previously told the Daily Journal he met with Bryant and Davis to help secure the Autism Center a $75,000 welfare subgrant from the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
McMahan said he doesn't believe he is the subject of a criminal investigation and that the FBI only spoke with him to gather information. The Lee County lawmaker said he did not have legal counsel present with him during the conversation.
Former MDHS head Davis pleaded guilty on Thursday to federal and state conspiracy and fraud charges related to a separate matter involving welfare dollars. Davis is required to cooperate with federal and state authorities and testify against potential defendants, according to his plea deal.
FBI scrutiny of the McMahan meeting could indicate additional areas of interest for federal prosecutors, including Bryant's role in how welfare dollars were doled out under Davis. The exact scope and targets of the federal probe have remained guarded.
A spokesperson with the FBI’s Jackson field office declined to comment.
A spokesperson for Bryant, Denton Gibbes, told the Daily Journal that Bryant has not been interviewed by the FBI, but he declined to comment about McMahan's latest disclosure.
State auditors have said MDHS should not have awarded the $75,000 in federal welfare dollars to the Lee County nonprofit because the project in question fell outside of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ overall guidelines.
McMahan has maintained that he was only trying to help his constituents and he had no knowledge that the nonprofit’s project fell outside of TANF regulations.
The lawmaker said he remembered Bryant telling Davis, “This sounds like a worthy project, so if you can help them, you should consider it. But make sure the law is followed.”
But the meeting and subsequent grant award continues to raise questions about how MDHS under Davis’ leadership distributed TANF grants to different projects and raises questions about what influence elected leaders wielded in deciding where money went.
FRC alleges political interference also discussed in meeting
Leaders of another Tupelo-based nonprofit involved in the welfare scandal, the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi, believe the participants of the 2018 meeting may have discussed how to leverage TANF dollars to silence political opponents.
Christi Webb, director of the FRC, hired Debbie Hood, the wife of then-Attorney General Jim Hood, in 2018 to manage the organization’s Chickasaw County office. Hood was also the Democratic nominee for governor in 2019.
Casey Lott, an attorney for the FRC, told the Daily Journal that a lawmaker in north Mississippi sent word to the nonprofit’s leaders that they should fire Debbie Hood or else they would lose public funding.
Lott’s allegations, which were first reported by Mississippi Today, include speculation that Debbie Hood’s name was mentioned at the same meeting to discuss the autism center.
Lott, who was not directly a party to the conversation, did not identify McMahan as the person who delivered the threat over Debbie Hood's employment.
But a person connected to the FRC who wished to remain anonymous to discuss the sensitive topic did identify McMahan as the person who delivered the message.
“He told people that he was acting as a messenger for the governor,” the person said.
McMahan has adamantly denied these accounts.
“I don’t have any memory or visibility of those types of conversations,” McMahan said, adding that he did not even know who Jim Hood’s wife was at the time the meetings took place.
Lott has claimed that Webb is the only person in the welfare scheme who stood up to Davis by refusing to award more contacts to retired former wrestler Brett DiBiase.
When asked if Webb or any other leaders at the FRC had communicated with the FBI, or if they were cooperating with investigators, Lott declined to comment.
The FRC received millions of TANF dollars through a statewide initiative. A forensic audit has identified that the nonprofit misused over $11 million in a four-year period. State officials are also suing the FRC to recoup some of the allegedly misspent money, but no one at the organization has been criminally charged.