A week after hiring an ex-Trump White House attorney, retired NFL star Brett Favre is telling Fox News that he did not know that $1.1 million he received from a Mississippi nonprofit and millions he helped his alma mater obtain to build a volleyball stadium were federal welfare funds.
“I have been unjustly smeared in the media,” he said in a statement the conservative news outlet published online this morning. “I have done nothing wrong, and it is past time to set the record straight.”
Between 2016 and 2019, Mississippi officials and nonprofit operators misspent more than $77 million, prosecutors say. That includes $1.1 million in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families funds that Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis funneled through the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center and paid to Favre–officially in exchange for recording promotional material and attending several events.
Davis and MCEC’s director who helped direct the money, Nancy New, have pleaded guilty to multiple charges in the sprawling scandal. Text messages released in public court filings show that New helped Favre obtain $5 million in funds for the volleyball project for the University of Southern Mississippi, in addition to $1.1 million in TANF funds MCEC paid to Favre directly, after they met in the summer of 2017.
Court filings say that the $1.1-million payment was to help Favre cover additional costs beyond the first $5 million Davis agreed to pay for construction of the stadium. None of the available texts indicate that Favre knew the money came specifically from welfare funds, though they do suggest he knew it was MDHS money.
After a meeting with Davis on July 24, 2017, Favre sent Nancy New a text message thanking her, saying that “John (Davis) mentioned 4 million and not sure if I heard him right.” He called it a “Very big deal.” The figure later rose to $5 million.
“No one ever told me, and I did not know, that funds designated for welfare recipients were going to the University or me,” Favre said in the Fox News statement. “I tried to help my alma mater USM, 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.”
Fox News reported that Mississippi State Auditor Shad White told FOX that Favre may not have known the money was specifically TANF welfare funds, but that he did know “that it’s government money” and that it came from MDHS. “And of course, that agency is the agency that is responsible for handling programs that are geared toward helping the poor,” White added.
While not a criminal defendant, Favre is named alongside Davis and New in a civil suit in which the Mississippi Department of Human Services is attempting to claw back $24 million of illegally spent TANF funds from 38 individuals or entities. The civil suit is separate from the criminal cases, and does not include an effort to retrieve $5 million in TANF funds used to construct the volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi.
When the attorney originally leading the civil case, Brad Pigott, attempted to issue subpoenas related to the volleyball project in July, the State fired him at Gov. Tate Reeves’ direction and replaced him with Jones Walker, a New Orleans-based law firm, with Reeves alleging that Pigott had political motives.
In his criminal plea agreement on April 22, 2022, Zach New explained that he “acted with” his mother “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.”
Despite concerns among some USM officials, the disguised sublease scheme for $5 million in TANF funds gained the approval of then-Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office, USM and the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, which oversees the state’s public colleges and universities. The October 2017 IHL board minutes indicated that the sublease between MCEC and the Athletic Foundation used funding obtained “via a Block Grant from the Mississippi Department of Human Services,” but did not specifically mention federal funds.
The minutes said MCEC was “designed to provide schools, communities and families with educational services and training programs” and “will use the subject facilities to support their programming efforts for South Mississippi.”
The publicly available text messages show that Favre and New discussed services the retired star could perform in order to receive the $1.1 million payment to help pay off his debt on the volleyball stadium. At one point, the retired NFL star raised concerns about whether it could become public knowledge.
“If you were to pay me is there anyway (sic) the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre asked Nancy New in an Aug. 3, 2017, text message, which MCEC disclosed recently in court filings. “No, we never have had that information publicized,” New replied, adding that she understood him “being uneasy about that though.”
Favre’s new attorney, former White House Senior Adviser Eric Herschmann, told Fox News that those texts show Favre’s concerns about the media discovering that a nonprofit paid him—not that they were TANF funds.
“Brett entered into a private agreement to record a publicity pitch for a not-for-profit,” Fox News reported Herschmann saying. “Like most celebrities, he didn’t want his source of income to be public. That’s why he asked would it become public. He had no idea that the payment came from TANF and had he known, he never would have accepted the money.”
Last month, former Gov. Bryant released text messages between himself and Favre, including a 2019 text message in which Favre continued pushing for more state funding for sports projects at USM.
“Nancy has some limited control over Federal Funds in the form of Grants for Children and adults in the Low Income Community. Use of these funds are tightly controlled. Any improper use could result in violation of federal law,” Bryant wrote Favre on July 25, 2019, explaining that auditors were reviewing the funding. “Thanks Governor,” Favre responded.
Since last year, Favre has ignored numerous requests for comment from the Mississippi Free Press.
“After I found out the money I was paid for fundraising radio spots came from federal welfare funds, I returned all of it,” Favre said in his statement to Fox News today, referring to the $1.1 million.
The retired NFL star did return $500,000 after the payment became public knowledge in May 2020—three months after officials arrested six in the welfare fraud case, including Davis and the News. Though he vowed at the time to return the remaining $600,000 he had received, he did not do so until after Auditor White issued a demand letter 17 months later.
By that time, White had tacked on an additional $228,000 in interest fees, which the South Mississippi football celebrity still has not paid.
You can read our in-depth report on Brett Favre and the volleyball saga. You can also explore our timeline of events that tells the story through dozens of text messages, documents and images. Click here to see our #MSWelfareScandal archive dating back to February 2020.
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. Auditor Shad White has submitted Free Press opinion columns. Neither the law firm, Pigott nor White has any influence on our coverage.