In May 2020, Mississippi’s state auditor announced that the Department of Human Services had wasted tens of millions of dollars in federal money meant to be used to help needy families.
Since then, the investigation into those misspent funds has expanded to include state officials, bureaucrats and celebrity sports figures, including retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Six people have faced criminal charges, and back-and-forth legal filings in an ongoing civil lawsuit have led to the publication of eye-opening private text messages.
Here’s what we know about the welfare scandal, Favre’s role and where the case stands now.
How the case began
Mississippi state auditor Shad White announced in May 2020 the Department of Human Services wasted tens of millions of dollars in federal welfare grant funds through misspending, personal use, and spending on family members, friends of staffers and grantees.
The eight-month-long investigation showed that the department gave more than $98 million to two non-profits: The Mississippi Community Education Center and the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi. Of the $98 million, $94 million was “questioned,” meaning it was either definitively misspent or auditors were unable to determine if it was legally spent.
Most of the money came from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal program that gives grant funding to states, which are then supposed to use the money to help low-income families with children.
A follow-up audit conducted by an accounting firm in Maryland found that more than $77 million was improperly used from the state’s welfare program through the non-profits, including spending on expensive cars, a private school and pet projects of celebrities and the politically connected.
“Two years ago my office audited DHS,” White said in a statement in October 2021. “After two years of work, we found tens of millions of dollars in misspending. Those findings have now been confirmed, this month, by an independent forensic audit commissioned by DHS. It’s time for the taxpayers to attempt to recover what we lost.”
How Favre is involved
One of the recipients of these funds was Favre, the Hall of Fame quarterback and Mississippi native. According to the audit, the Mississippi Community Education Center directly paid him $1.1 million in TANF funds for promotional ads and speaking appearances that the state auditor said never occurred.
Favre returned $500,000 in May 2020 and repaid the remaining $600,000 in October 2021 after the state auditor issued a demand letter for it, according to the auditor’s office. But the auditor’s office maintains Favre still owes $228,000 in interest payments.
Favre has said he had been asking the state for funds to build a new volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he played football from 1987-90 and his daughter played volleyball from 2017-2022. The media outlet Mississippi Today, which has covered the scheme for several years, has reported that at least $5 million of the welfare funds were channeled to the new facility.
In a statement last week, Favre denied wrongdoing and said he did not know that the funding was supposed to go toward needy families.
“No one ever told me, and I did not know, that funds designated for welfare recipients were going to the University or me,” he said. “I tried to help my alma mater (the University of Southern Mississippi), a public Mississippi state university, raise funds for a wellness center. My goal was and always will be to improve the athletic facilities at my university.”
Who has faced legal issues
In the wake of the audits, six people were charged with wrongdoing and five have pleaded guilty.
John Davis, 54, the former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, pleaded guilty to two federal counts and 18 state counts.
Nancy New, the founder of the non-profit Mississippi Community Education Center, pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, fraud, mail fraud and racketeering.
Zach New, her son and assistant executive director of center, pleaded guilty to bribery, fraud and mail fraud.
Anne McGrew, an accountant for the center, pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
Brett DiBiase, a former professional wrestler who received needy family funds for fake work, pleaded guilty to making fraudulent statements.
In addition, Mississippi Department of Human Services brought a civil lawsuit against more than 35 people and entities, including Favre and the Mississippi Community Education Center, to recover some of the funds.
Why text messages from Favre have been released
That lawsuit and its ongoing legal filings have revealed several private text messages between Favre, former Gov. Phil Bryant and other figures involved.
For example, in an August 2017 conversation, Favre wrote to Nancy New, the founder of the non-profit MCEC, about his concerns about media publicity.
“If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre wrote.
“No, we never have had that information publicized,” New said.
The next day, New texted Favre with an update: “Wow, just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with us! We will get this done!”
Other texts show Bryant worked to help Favre obtain funds.
“Just left Brett Farve (sic). Can we help him with his project,” Bryant wrote to New in a July 2019 message. “We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course.”
Those texts were included in a legal filing from New as part of a motion to compel Bryant to produce further documents. In a statement, Bryant’s attorney William M. Quin II said those documents are privileged.
“Cases should be tried in courts of law where rules of evidence govern and privileges are respected. They should not be tried in the press, where innuendo and speculation sometimes get confused with actual facts. It appears that New’s attorney prefers to try his client’s case in the latter as opposed to the former.”
Other text messages dating to July 2019 show Favre texted Bryant numerous times asking if the funding for the volleyball complex would be secured. Bryant warned that proper approval was needed.
“Use of these funds (is) tightly controlled. Any improper use could result in violation of Federal Law,” Bryant texted to Favre on July 28, 2019, according to the filing.
“As soon as we get approval we can move forward. Without that approval any expenditure could be illegal and Nancy and USM could be made to repay the Federal Government any and all funds spent,” the then-governor added, according to the filing.
Favre, however, continued to press the governor, texting him again on September 4, 2019, about the need for funding for the facility.
“We obviously need your help big time and time is working against us. And we feel that your name is the perfect choice for this facility, and we are not taking No for an answer! You are a Southern Miss Alumni, and folks need to know you are also a supporter of the University,” Favre texted the governor, according to the filing.
Bryant responded, “We are going to get there. This was a great meeting. But we have to follow the law. I am to(o) old for Federal Prison. (smiley face, sunglasses emoji),” according to the filing.
CNN’s Hannah Sarisohn and Devon M. Sayers contributed to this report.