Senate confirms U.S. attorney Todd Gee, who will inherit historic Mississippi welfare probe
Published 5:16 pm Friday, September 29, 2023
By Anna Wolfe and Matt Laslo | Mississippi Today
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Friday voted to confirm the appointment of Todd Gee, a Vicksburg native, to run the U.S. Attorney Office for the Southern District of Mississippi, which is overseeing what officials have called the largest public fraud case in state history.
At a time when appointments to the U.S. Department of Justice have been particularly politicized amid the prosecution of former President Donald Trump, Gee’s confirmation was pushed through with help from Mississippi’s senior U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker.
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The Senate confirmation comes more than a year after President Joe Biden appointed Gee to the post.
“I talked to my colleague and friend Roger Wicker about Mr. Gee,” said Sen. J.D. Vance, a Republican from Ohio who previously worked to block any appointments to the nation’s lead law enforcement agency. “He assured me he’s a good person. We don’t have any major red flags in the background, so we ultimately voted yes. But the problem is, with all these nominations, is their boss. It’s not them, it’s their boss, who is (U.S. Attorney General) Merrick Garland.”
Historically, unless there was some question of a nominee’s fitness, the Senate would approve the president’s picks en masse by a voice vote, but some Republican senators like Vance have insisted on confirming Gee and others through a roll call vote.
“The president is entitled to his or her nominees,” said University of Richmond Law Professor Carl Tobias. “This cuts against a long-standing tradition.”
Wicker, Mississippi’s senior senator, could be seen on the Senate floor throughout the duration of Gee’s confirmation vote on Friday at times conversing with other senators.
President Joe Biden nominated Gee, who had been serving as deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, a little over a year ago. Gee’s appointment had stalled until U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith returned a “blue slip” — an informal congressional practice that signaled her support for the nominee — in April. It took another five months for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to agree to bring the nomination of Gee to a vote.
“It’s unfortunate that Mississippi had to wait a year for that,” Tobias said. “It just doesn’t make any sense at all, especially when it’s not on the merits of the nominee. It just shows you the dysfunction of the Senate.”
Senators voted 82-8 on Friday to approve Gee. Opposing his nomination were Republican U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rick Scott (R-Florida), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), Mike Braun (R-Indiana), Katie Britt (R-Alabama), Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and Eric Schmitt (R-Missouri).
Mississippi’s southern district, which encompasses the capital city of Jackson, has not had a permanent U.S. attorney at its helm since Mike Hurst stepped down in January 2021. Interim U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca has led the office since.
Gee will take the lead on prosecuting Mississippi’s historic welfare fraud case, in which several people have already admitted to using millions of federal grant funds that should have assisted Mississippi’s most vulnerable families instead to make favors for political allies or enrich their friends and family. Seven people, including former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis and prominent nonprofit founder Nancy New, have pleaded guilty to state or federal charges within the scheme, but none of them have been sentenced as they continue to cooperate with investigators.
The last public action the U.S. Attorney’s Office has taken in the case was indicting former WWE wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. in April. DiBiase pleaded not guilty.
Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, who secured the first indictments in the case, said last year at Davis’ plea hearing that his office was continuing to review evidence, such as text messages and other communication, as it “continue(s) to move up … the ladder” to prosecute more individuals. But since then, no one in a position above Davis has been charged.
Tobias said the U.S. Attorney’s Office might have decided to wait to bring more charges, especially if it is looking at higher profile individuals until the office had a permanent leader.
“I think it gives the public and lawyers and everyone a higher comfort level when it’s not just an acting attorney but rather someone who’s been nominated by the president, confirmed by the senate and that person checks out in terms of qualifications,” Tobias said. “That’s important. Especially if it’s high profile because that person is going to have to do some very difficult things, maybe, if it involves these high-ranking political officials. So you want the full weight of the office there.”
State Auditor Shad White, who made the initial arrests in the case in early 2020, said in a statement Friday morning that his office will continue to assist Gee’s office in the case.
“More than three years ago, my team and District Attorney Jody Owens put a stop to the welfare scheme in Mississippi with the indictment and arrest of six people,” White said. “We also turned all our evidence over to federal authorities to show the public that the case would be fully investigated, all the way. At that time three years ago, federal investigators and the U.S. Attorney asked to take the lead on prosecuting any additional people beyond the first six defendants. My office agreed to assist them in any way possible. We have enjoyed a good relationship with federal prosecutors since then as they have deliberated about whom to charge. They make that call. And the appointment of Mr. Gee changes nothing in our posture. We will continue to work with federal prosecutors to bring the case to a conclusion.”
Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe reported this story from Jackson. Freelance reporter Matt Laslo reported this story from Washington. Mississippi Today’s Taylor Vance contributed to this report.