Investigative journalist wins Pulitzer
for Mississippi series on Medicaid fraud

Reporter Anna Wolfe

Investigative journalist Anna Wolfe. Photo courtesy of Anna Wolfe

Investigative journalist Anna Wolfe has a secret. 

During a multi-year investigation into a sprawling scandal over misspent welfare funds in Mississippi, Wolfe received dozens of text messages that helped to blow the lid off the case. Since getting those messages last year, the award-winning reporter has protected her source’s anonymity. But in an interview with AHCJ, she promised to reveal the name someday — when the time is right. 

On May 8, Wolfe won a Pulitzer Prize in the local news category for Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization founded in 2016, for her coverage of what’s called the biggest public corruption scandal in the state’s history.

Over five years, Wolfe wrote more than 100 articles on how state officials used federal funds under Medicaid’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Medicaid provides health insurance for 92 million Americans, according to KFF, and other funding to support the underserved.

Wolfe’s efforts exposed how former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, used his office to maneuver millions of state Department of Human Services (DHS) grant funds to benefit his family and friends, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. A nonprofit news organization founded in 2016, Mississippi Today has collected Wolfe’s corruption stories under the banner The Backchannel.

Persistence pays dividends

How Wolfe won the Pulitzer and other awards for her work offers multiple lessons for all journalists, including these:

  • Covering poverty and economic justice, Wolfe’s reporting demonstrates that when one reporter has the time and determination to dig into an important story, the results can be extraordinary. 
  • Her work also shows the value of staying in touch with multiple sources over months and years and of concealing sources’ names when needed. 
  • Wolfe’s efforts demonstrate the value of continuing to report on a story by moving the narrative forward despite the lack of attention-grabbing headlines.

In addition to being persistent and keeping the story before the public, Wolfe used these time-honored reporting strategies:

  1. Holding officials accountable by filing a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission for failing to respond in a timely manner to her queries.
  2. Filing more than 80 public-record requests which produced thousands of emails and agency documents that she analyzed and used to conduct dozens of interviews.
  3. Using a spreadsheet to show that Mississippi got more in grant funding than it reported spending. 
  4. Visiting the sites that got some of the TANF funding, prompting more questions, she said. 

In 2019, the state auditor began an investigation leading to arrests of state officials, including the former director of the state welfare agency. But that inquest involved only a fraction of the overall scheme, Wolfe said. She was the first to uncover Brett Favre’s connection to the scandal, which included a volleyball stadium built with TANF funds at the University of Southern Mississippi

Less than two years ago, an independent auditing company confirmed some of what the state auditor and Wolfe uncovered. The independent firm showed that DHS misspent tens of millions of dollars over several years, including $12.4 million in possible fraud ranging from high-dollar contracts with vague responsibilities to a lease on a building that sat empty. The firm also found $36.1 million in welfare funds has been used on items prohibited under federal rules, such as a virtual reality lab and sports camps, she wrote. The audit was disappointing, however, because it did not account for roughly $41 million and provided little explanation for the misspent millions of dollars, Wolfe added.

Follow the money

In an interview last fall, Wolfe described how her reporting on TANF money began in 2017, when she was a health care reporter at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. At the time, a colleague reported that DHS received more than 10,000 applications in a year and approved just a hundred or so people for cash assistance, she explained. “For the next year or so, I was trying to find out why so many people were being denied,” Wolfe added.  

In September 2018, Wolfe joined the staff of Mississippi Today and continued looking into the states’ TANF spending. Her two big questions were: Why were so many families in need denied? And where did that money go? 

“When I asked these questions, it was very difficult to get any answers or any of the records I needed,” Wolfe said. “They were gaslighting me because they would supply records that didn’t match what I wanted.”

Worse still, state officials wouldn’t submit to phone interviews. “That went on for about two years,” she said. At this time, Wolfe was analyzing all federal reports labeled “TANF Work Program” dating from 2015. The total spent represented a fraction of the state’s total welfare spending, she wrote, “leaving millions in spending a mystery to the public.” In January 2019, she reported that fewer than 7% of Mississippi families living below the poverty line received this support.

And the explanations for denials lacked enough details to explain why families in need were turned down, she said. Without the answers she wanted, Wolfe wrote what she called “wonky” articles about denials and the failure among state officials to answer her questions. These articles signaled to readers and sources that she was staying on the story. 

In January 2019, for example, Wolfe highlighted the agency’s lack of transparency in denying welfare applications. Failing to get sufficient answers, Wolfe filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission that resulted in the commission ordering DHS “to strictly comply with the statutory deadlines and procedures” under state law.

Texts expose former governor’s role

In April 2022, Wolfe’s persistence paid off when she reported on the role former Gov. Bryant had in the affair. In an April 2022 article, she explained that law enforcement agents had gathered thousands of pages of text messages showing communications among some of the key players. She also reported that those text messages were shared with the staff of Mississippi Today, but did not reveal the source. 

The text messages showed that Bryant helped secure millions to help build the university’s volleyball stadium. Earlier, Bryant had denied directing welfare funds to the stadium project. Also, the texts showed that Brett Favre planned to use state grant funds for an experimental drug project that was unknown to the public, and that Bryant was set to accept stock in the drug company, Prevacus, after leaving office.

Wolfe’s efforts gathered national attention and multiple awards, including the 2023 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism, and the 2023 Nellie Bly Award for Investigative Reporting

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