The FBI has interviewed retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre regarding the Mississippi welfare scandal that saw over $77 million in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families Funds doled out to fund pet projects and sports celebrities—including Favre himself. NBC News reported Thursday night that Favre’s attorney confirmed the FBI’s involvement.
Between 2017 and 2018, a nonprofit whose operators have since pleaded guilty on multiple charges paid Favre $1.1 million for promotional spots and motivational speeches that Mississippi State Auditor Shad White says he never gave.
“Favre hasn’t been accused of a crime or charged, and he declined an interview,” NBC News’ Ken Dilanian, Laura Strickler and Didi Martinez reported. “His lawyer, Bud Holmes, said (Favre) did nothing wrong and never understood he was paid with money intended to help poor children. “Holmes acknowledged that the FBI had questioned Favre in the case, a fact that hasn’t previously been reported.”
After receiving multiple demands from the Office of the State Auditor in late 2021, Favre repaid the full $1.1 million, but White says he still owes $228,000 in interest. Favre lives near Hattiesburg, Miss., and has denied any wrongdoing in the case. No officials have accused him of any crimes.
The depth of the FBI’s involvement in the case remains unclear. Since 2020, state and federal prosecutors have indicted multiple people in the TANF fraud scandal, including former Mississippi Department of Human ServicesJohn Davis, the, and even his nephew Austin Smith.
The nonprofit operators for the Mississippi Community Education Center and Family Resource Center, Nancy New and Zach New, described in plea agreements how they worked with Davis. They described funneling welfare funds from MDHS, through their nonprofits and into the pockets or causes of celebrities like Favre, retired pro wrestler Ted DiBiase and former football player Marcus DuPree.
‘Gross Misuse of TANF Dollars’
Mississippi has the highest poverty rate of any state in the country. Despite that, MDHS data show that the State yearly rejects more than 90% of poor Mississippians who apply for TANF assistance. In the past year, just 2,500 children received TANF out of approximately 192,000 who live in poverty.
In mid-July, U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., sent a letter to the U.S. Justice Department asking it to investigate former Gov. Phil Bryant for any role he may have played in the welfare-fraud scheme. Bryant was governor during the time the scheme took place and first appointed Davis to lead MDHS.
“This gross misuse of TANF dollars must illicit a review of former Governor Phil Bryant’s involvement,” Thompson said in his letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Such an investigation should also examine the intolerable activity of retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and how his actions were aided by Governor Bryant.
“I urge you to work with the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a federal investigation into the Mississippi TANF embezzlement scheme that centers around the role of former Governor Phil Bryant. The people of Mississippi deserve answers, and accountability for breaking the law must be upheld for all who were involved: especially for Governor Bryant.”
But the former Republican governor has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge that MDHS was misusing welfare money. In 2020, Auditor White said Bryant first notified his office of potential wrongdoing in the agency in mid-2019. During his time as governor, Bryant had close ties to Nancy New and he celebrated the launch of Families First For Mississippi, an MCEC offshoot, with her in 2016. Prosecutors have not accused the former governor of wrongdoing in the ongoing investigation.
Civil Suit Ongoing Despite Firing
In late July, an attorney for the News subpoenaed Bryant for documents relating to the decision to use $5 million in TANF funds to build a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi. Favre, a friend of the former governor, privately advocated for the volleyball stadium’s construction. (Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe was the first to report on Favre’s involvement and the volleyball stadium funds in early 2020).
In 2017, MCEC directed TANF funds it received to the USM Athletic Foundation, whose board Nancy New sat on, to fund the stadium.
As part of his plea agreement on April 22, 2022, Zach New said that, in July 2017, he “acted with” his mother, former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis “and others, at their direction, to disguise the USM construction project as a ‘lease’ as a means of circumventing the limited purpose grant’s strict prohibition against ‘brick and mortar’ construction projects in violation of Miss. Code Ann. 97-7-10.”
In May, the State of Mississippi filed a civil lawsuit against 38 individuals (including Davis, the News and Favre) seeking to retrieve millions in misspent welfare funds on behalf of MDHS. On July 11, the private attorney leading the case, Brad Pigott, issued a subpoena to the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation asking for copies of its communications with Bryant, his wife Deborah Bryant, Favre, the News, Davis and retired WWE wrestler Ted DiBiase Jr., a recipient of the misspent TANF funds.
After the subpoena, MDHS fired Pigott on July 22. The lawyer told Wolfe he believed the State fired him for “trying to get to the truth” about the volleyball stadium and claimed the current governor, Tate Reeves, was involved in the decision. Pigott said his firing was political, but current MDHS Director Bob Anderson, a Reeves appointee, said that Pigott had “made a solid start at moving the litigation along” but had since “made decisions about the litigation and filed pleadings without any prior dialogue with officials at MDHS.” Reeves publicly claimed Pigott was “chasing a political angle.”
In mid-August, the State announced that it had hired Jackson-based law firm Jones Walker LLP to take over the civil suit with a $400,000 contract, up from Pigott’s $75,000 contract.
“(Jones Walker) will eagerly cooperate with those criminal investigators whose mission is to get truth and justice for the misconduct that occurred during the previous administration,” Gov. Reeves said in a statement after announcing the contract in mid-August. “And they will leave no stone unturned in the effort to recover misspent TANF funds.”
On Aug. 18, the Daily Journal’s Caleb Bedillion reported that Austin Smith’s attorney, Jim Waide, was attempting to block the State from replacing Pigott with Jones Walker. Waide filed an objection and claimed that the arrangement with Jones Walker “will likely result in the expensive pursuit of low-level defendants, such as Austin Smith and others, who have no means to pay a judgment.”
Editor’s Note: Jones Walker provides legal services to the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, which produces the Mississippi Free Press. Attorney Brad Pigott has also donated to the Mississippi Free Press in the past. Neither the law firm nor Pigott have any influence on our coverage.