Brett Favre sought Gov. Tate Reeves’ help to get state funds to pay for volleyball facilities that the former NFL star had vowed to personally fund at his alma mater, according to text messages the Mississippi Free Press obtained through a public-records request to the governor’s office. The discussions did not appear to involve any welfare funds, however, and no evidence suggests Reeves followed through on the request.
In 2017, before Reeves was governor, the Mississippi Department of Human Services directed $5 million in Temporary Assistance For Needy Families welfare funds to build a volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi, Favre’s alma mater. His daughter, Breleigh Favre, was starting a volleyball career at USM that year. But even after getting help from MDHS officials, the celebrity athlete still owed the university at least $1.6 million for the project upon its completion in January 2020.
On Jan. 26, 2020, Favre sent a text to former Gov. Phil Bryant, who had just left the job weeks earlier, asking if he could “think of anyone or any other way of getting funding for the remainder of Vball.” Bryant revealed those text messages in September court filings as part of a civil case over misspent TANF funds.
In the messages, Bryant told Favre that the state auditor was still conducting an investigation “into spending at the Department of Human Services” and that he may need to “visit” Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Reeves, then the new governor, to seek funding from the Legislature. He also suggested speaking with Sen. Briggs Hopson, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.
“I just sent Tate a message,” Favre told him.
The text messages that Gov. Reeves’ office sent in response to this publication’s public-records request for texts between him and Favre, however, do not include any texts on Jan. 26, 2020; the first one in the batch of documents is dated Jan. 27, 2020, at 11:49 a.m. The Mississippi Free Press asked the governor’s office about the discrepancy on Wednesday. On Friday morning, Public Records Compliance Officer Shelby Wilcher said they “reviewed the production and no text messages were left out.”
“Hey bud we set to talk today at 2 Todd said,” Favre wrote to Reeves in the first Jan. 27 text, apparently referring to the governor’s brother Todd Reeves. The governor replied with a thumbs-up emoji. At 2:01 p.m., Favre asked Reeves if he was free to talk. “Yes sir,” Reeves replied.
Another text from Favre to Reeves later that afternoon makes it clear that the two discussed the volleyball facility during their phone call.
“Failed to mention but there will be state programs using the facility like seminars,teen rallies,obesity campaigns etc…,” the athlete wrote at 3:55 p.m. “Again thanks I know you have many requests,” Favre added. He shared another thought 15 hours later, at 7:15 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2020: “And name it after Governor Bryant.” The text messages do not include a response from Reeves to any of those messages.
The ‘Sprawling Conspiracy’ Unravels
Starting in 2017, Favre began asking for then-Gov. Bryant for help funding the volleyball program. The 2017 text messages that Bryant disclosed earlier this year show that the ex-governor said he would help “raise money,” but do not mention state funds.
By July 2017, however, Favre was in contact with Nancy New, whose nonprofit, the Mississippi Community Education Center, controlled millions in state welfare funds. That month, New arranged a meeting with then-Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis, who agreed to spend $4 million (later $5 million) in TANF funds on the volleyball project through New’s nonprofit.
After Favre told New the facility would cost more than expected, she used TANF funds to personally pay him $1.1 million through MCEC, supposedly in exchange for promotional work and speeches. The costs would continue to rise as the project grew to include an adjacent outdoor beach volleyball facility next to the 28,000-square-foot stadium.
TANF funds are federal dollars intended to help poor families with children, but under Davis, MDHS rejected nearly 99% of poor welfare applicants in 2016 as he moved tens of millions in TANF funds through MCEC and toward projects favored by wealthy and powerful individuals—including celebrity athletes.
Bryant fired Davis in July 2019 after the state auditor began an investigation into the director’s spending at MDHS. Text messages that New filed in court this year show that she struggled to procure additional TANF funds for her organizations after Davis’ departure even as Favre continued to press her for help obtaining more funding for the volleyball project. By January 2020, Bryant ordered the state to cease all funding to her nonprofit, MCEC, as New and her son, Zach New, became ensnared in the investigation.
On the morning of Feb. 5, 2020, Mississippi State Auditor Shad White and Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens announced the arrests of John Davis, Nancy New, Zach New and three other people connected to what White called a “sprawling conspiracy” involving tens of millions in misspent welfare funds.
The officials alleged numerous illegal uses of TANF funds, including saying that the News transferred millions to their private business and that, along with Davis, they created “a fraud scheme to take TANF funds to pay for personal investments” in two Florida-based medical device companies: Prevacus, Inc., and PreSolMD, LLC.
The litany of allegations officials leveled at the accused that day, though, included no mention of MDHS and MCEC’s payments to Favre or the USM Athletic Foundation. They also did not mention that Favre, who has not been accused of a crime, was a Prevacus investor and member of its Sports Advisory Board.
‘What Your Trying to Help Me For’
Hours after the arrests that included the former director and nonprofit operator who helped him get millions for the volleyball facility, Favre once again sent a text message to Gov. Reeves at 2:53 p.m., the public records the Mississippi Free Press requested show.
“Tate a classmate of Deanna and myself Desmond Hoda is a candidate for chiropractic board and asked if I would put a good word in,” Favre wrote. (Deanna Favre is his wife). “I wouldn’t if I didn’t think he was worthy. Not sure how good a chiropractor he is but he is a helluva guy!!!”
Before the new governor could respond, Favre followed up with a text about the topic that had preoccupied him since 2017. By this time, both the volleyball stadium and a nearby beach volleyball facility were complete, even though the former NFL star still owed his alma mater money.
“Also Deanna and I want to show you the facility and it would only be us,” Favre wrote. “I want you to see what your trying to help me for. … Oh Todd said y’all may go to the concert Friday if so we may tag along and if time permits we show you facility.”
The texts show that Reeves responded to the text about Hoda, who runs a chiropractic clinic in Diamondhead, Miss., but they do not show a response to Favre’s invitation to tour the volleyball stadium.
“Great timing,” Reeves wrote. “We were just talking about Hoda earlier today! I will definitely appoint him based on your recommendation (or really Deanna’s -HA)! TR.”
“Well said😂😂,” Favre replied.
The next day, however, Favre told former Gov. Bryant in a text message that Reeves “said he was gonna get with his team and figure something out.” The ex-governor responded with a link to a Mississippi Center For Public Policy article about the arrests in the welfare fraud case, adding that “this has been the problem.”
“Yeah I’m well aware of it,” Favre replied before pivoting quickly back to his search for volleyball funds, saying he thought “the angle Tate is looking at is a bond bill.” Bryant told him that bond bills “can sure be used for Brick and mortar” projects. (That is unlike TANF funds, which the law prohibits from being used for brick-and-mortar projects).
“Anything I can do?” Favre asked.
“May want to meet with Tate when you can..,” the ex-governor replied.
“I did and he said he would get with his team,” Favre wrote.
“Then just have to wait till a bond bill is drafted and hope you make the list👍🏼,” Bryant replied.
The Mississippi Free Press requested copies of Gov. Reeves’ calendars from January and February 2020, but they do not list any phone calls or meetings with Favre. The entry for Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, the day Favre offered to give Reeves a tour of the USM volleyball facility, is blank.
Less than a week after his last available texts with Favre, Reeves nominated the athlete’s friend to the Mississippi Board of Chiropractic Examiners on Feb. 12, 2020, and the Legislature confirmed Hoda unanimously on June 29, 2020.
But the bond bill Favre had hoped the governor would help secure to cover the remaining costs on the USM volleyball stadium never came. Instead, by the end of the month, the public would learn for the first time about Brett Favre’s proximity to the TANF scandal.
A ‘Disguised’ Agreement
On Feb. 27, 2020, then-Chief of Staff to the Governor Brad White sent a group message to Gov. Reeves and Sen. Briggs Hopson, the Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman, a text message with a link to a Mississippi Today article titled, “Embattled welfare group paid $5 million for new USM volleyball center.” White’s Feb. 27 text message does not indicate a response from Reeves.
Reporter Anna Wolfe’s story noted that the state gave MCEC $5 million to build the stadium and pointed to a January 2020 Associated Press article in which Favre said he had helped raise funds for the volleyball facility. The story pointed out that Favre sat on Prevacus’ advisory board and had endorsed its nasal concussion medication. Wolfe would later report that Favre sought Bryant’s help bringing Prevacus to Mississippi.
On April 30, 2020, State Auditor Shad White revealed for the first time that MCEC had personally paid Favre $1.1 million using TANF funds for services that White would later say Favre never performed. In a series of tweets, the athlete claimed in May 2020 that he “never received monies for obligations (he) didn’t meet” and that he was not aware that the money came from TANF funds.
Still, Favre vowed to “refund the full amount back to Mississippi,” repaying $500,000 that month and promising to “repay the remainder in installments over the next few months.” Nearly a year-and-a-half later, though, the Lamar County celebrity still had not paid the money back.
In October 2021, White issued a demand letter for Favre to repay the other $600,000 in addition to $228,000 in interest. The athlete repaid $600,000 later that month, but did not pay the interest. White referred the issue to the Mississippi Attorney General as a civil matter.
Still, no officials have accused Favre of a crime in the TANF scandal. Multiple people charged have accepted guilty pleas, including John Davis, Nancy New, Zach New and Brett DiBiase, although no one has served time. In his April 2022 guilty plea, Zach New explained how MCEC was able to use TANF funds to build the volleyball facility.
In his plea agreement, Zach New said 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.” That sublease agreement earned the approval of the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office and the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning in October 2017.
‘Not Taking No For An Answer’
In May 2022, MDHS filed a civil complaint against 38 individuals or entities demanding the return of tens of millions in misspent welfare funds, including New, Davis and Favre. The original complaint did not mention or seek to retrieve the $5 million MDHS spent on the volleyball facility, however.
Two months later, in July 2022, Brad Pigott, a private attorney whom the State hired to lead MDHS’s civil case, issued subpoenas to the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation asking for copies of communications with Brett Favre, Nancy New, Phil Bryant and wife Deborah Bryant, and Ted DiBiase, Jr.
Just 11 days after issuing the subpoenas, though, the State of Mississippi fired Pigott. The attorney said he believed the firing was politically motivated, suggesting Gov. Reeves did not like that he was “trying to get to the truth.” At the Neshoba County Fair on July 28, 2022, Reeves told reporters that he was involved in the decision to fire Pigott, saying the attorney was “too focused on the political side” of the case. The State hired the New Orleans-based law firm Jones Walker to take over the case. (Note: Jones Walker has represented the Mississippi Free Press on unrelated matters.)
In response to Pigott’s firing, an attorney for Nancy New, who along with being a criminal defendant is a target of the civil case, issued a subpoena for Bryant to turn over documents, saying they had “no confidence” that the state would “pursue the evidence wherever it leads.”
New’s attorneys made a court filing in September that included dozens of text messages, including ones between New and Bryant, claiming the texts proved that “Governor Bryant knew MDHS funds were being sought by Favre to construct the Volleyball Facility” and “approved of the use of MDHS funds to construct the Volleyball Facility.” Prosecutors have not accused Bryant of a crime in relation to the TANF scandal.
In response, Bryant released dozens of his own texts, including ones with Favre and New. The former governor’s now-public text messages showed that during 2017 and 2018, his discussions about funding for the volleyball stadium were focused on private fundraising. Only after firing John Davis in July 2019 soon after the auditor’s investigation began do the texts show that Bryant was aware MCEC had used state funds to pay for the volleyball facility, the texts show.
After Favre and New became concerned that Bryant would not help them procure more MDHS funds for the volleyball facility in August 2019, New proposed naming the building the “Dewey Phillip Bryant Center For Excellence.” On Sept. 4, 2019, Favre texted Bryant saying that he and New “need your help big this 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,” the athlete added.
“We are going to get there,” Bryant replied. “But we have to follow the law. I am to (sic) old for Federal Prison. 😎”
By the end of 2019, Bryant had pulled funding for New’s nonprofit, Christopher Freeze, who served as interim MDHS director after Davis’ departure, told the Mississippi Free Press in September 2022. After Reeves took office in January 2020, he replaced Freeze with Jacob Black as interim MDHS director until finally appointing Bob Anderson to the role in March 2020.
‘Brett Favre Has Done Nothing Wrong’
Nancy New and former Gov. Phil Bryant’s text messages created a media frenzy in September that brought renewed national attention to the welfare scandal. On Oct. 3, 2022, Favre hired attorney Eric D. Herschmann, who represented former President Donald Trump during his first impeachment trial and served as a White House senior adviser from August 2020 to January 2021, to represent him in the MDHS civil suit.
On Nov. 28, 2022, Herschmann filed a motion to dismiss the civil complaint against Favre, declaring that “Brett Favre has done nothing wrong” and that “MDHS has sued Favre, a Mississippi and national celebrity, in an effort to deflect responsibility for its own egregious wrongdoing in allowing $94 million of its public funds to be misspent—funds for which MDHS itself admits it was ‘exclusively responsible.’”
The filing says that “Favre, unlike Davis and New and the other public officials, in fact did not know that any funds he received were TANF funds or were subject to a legal use restriction, had no responsibility to audit or monitor, let alone control, the use of MDHS and MCEC funds, and did nothing wrong in connection with those funds.”
While none of the publicly available texts involving Favre include references to the money as TANF funds, they do show the athlete met with Davis and that the then-MDHS director agreed to direct millions toward the volleyball project.
“Nancy Thank you again!!! John mentioned 4 million and not sure if I heard him right,” Favre wrote New on July 24, 2017, after he had met with Davis, New and others at USM earlier that day. “Very big deal and can’t thank you enough.” New and Favre were both honorary members of the USM Athletic Foundation board of directors at the time.
‘A Handshake Deal’
MDHS did not relent after Favre’s filing or Pigott’s firing. On Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, the department’s lawyers at Jones Walker made a motion to amend the original complaint that Pigott filed in May. The updated complaint attempts to add 10 more defendants to the lawsuit, including the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation. It also details the allegations regarding Favre, Davis and the volleyball facilities.
“As Executive Director, Davis surrounded himself with famous former male athletes,” and he “fraudulently abused his position at MDHS to ingratiate himself with these athletes by employing them or arranging to provide them with federal TANF grant funds,” it alleges.
The filing describes each of the alleged instances of misused funds, devoting one section to “Brett Favre and the USM Volleyball Facility.”
“In April 2017, Brett Favre made a handshake deal with the USM Athletic Foundation (the ‘Foundation’) in which he committed to personally guarantee the funds necessary for the brick-and-mortar construction of a volleyball facility,” the amended complaint says. “In furtherance of this agreement, Favre contributed $150,000 worth of autographed materials for the Foundation to auction to go toward the construction of the volleyball facility. Favre solicited his connections from his time as a quarterback for the Green Bay Packers to contribute to the construction of the volleyball facility, and obtained a few donations from the Kohler family and others.”
The document claims that “Davis, the Foundation, Nancy New, and Brett Favre all understood that grant funds provided by MDHS could not be used for brick-and-mortar construction.” In Favre’s Nov. 28 motion, his attorney claims Favre did not understand those limitations.
But in July 2017 text messages, Favre told New that USM Athletic Director Jon Gilbert was “very Leary (sic) of accepting such a large grant” and that he “did mention trying to find a way for John to allocate money to an entity that could then give to us that would pay for brick and mortar.” Favre told New that he “passed some info to John and of course he sent back we will find a way to make it work,” apparently referring to John Davis.
The amended complaint attempts to add former MDHS Deputy Administrator Jacob Black and former MDHS Deputy Executive Director Garrig Shields as defendants. The filing alleges that they “provided substantial assistance to the co-conspirators by advising on how to circumvent the TANF prohibition against paying for ‘brick and mortar’ with respect to a proposed palliative care facility” with a Jackson church that never went forward.
Still, the complaint alleges that the proposal served as “a model for the USM Athletic Foundation Sublease.” Prosecutors have not accused Black or Shields of any criminal wrongdoing.
The filing alleges that John Davis directed Black and Shields to meet with Gilbert and Assistant USM Athletic Director Daniel Feig to discuss the sublease. “Black and Shields advised at this meeting that the source of the funds would be TANF funds and that the sublease would be with MCEC because MDHS ‘can’t directly fund a building project,’” the amended complaint says.
The document says that MCEC only used the facility once during the five-year lease term. By the time the volleyball stadium was completed in December 2019, Favre’s daughter, Breleigh Favre, had switched from the indoor women’s volleyball team to the new beach volleyball team.
“The final construction costs of the volleyball facility exceeded the initial $5 million construction estimate, in part because of Brett Favre’s insistence that construction include a beach volleyball facility adjacent to the indoor volleyball facility,” MDHS’s amended complaint says. “Because Brett Favre was unwilling to satisfy the difference with his own funds, Favre sought additional grant funds from Nancy New to finance the volleyball facility.”
The complaint says that after MCEC paid Favre $1.1 million in TANF grant funds “supposedly as compensation for Favre’s recording radio advertisements or making speeches or appearances on behalf of MCEC and FRC,” the athlete “possibly recorded a single twenty-second radio advertisement.”
The filing acknowledges that Favre repaid the $1.1 million, but says he “has not, however, repaid the $5 million in TANF funds that he orchestrated for MCEC to pay to the Foundation to satisfy his personal guarantee to fund construction of the volleyball facility.” In his Nov. 28 filing, Favre’s lawyer said the athlete could not be held accountable for those funds because he “had no responsibility to audit or monitor, let alone control, the use of MDHS or MCEC funds, and did nothing wrong in connection with those funds.”
MDHS’ amended complaint also alleges that the News and Christi Webb, who runs the Family Resource Center and is a defendant in the civil suit along with FRC, “conspired with John Davis” to “obtain millions in TANF grant funds” for her nonprofit as well. The filing’s volleyball section says that “John Davis discussed his plan to ‘do good things for USM’ and ‘give them 4 mil’ with Christi Webb and Nancy New, both of whom enthusiastically agreed.”
“With the knowledge of the true purpose of the payment (to fulfill Brett Favre’s promise to fund the brick-and-mortar construction of the volleyball facility), Christi Webb agreed to transfer some portion of $2,137,436 from FRC to MCEC to pay for the USM Athletic Foundation Sublease,” the amended complaint claims. Prosecutors have not accused Webb or FRC of any crimes.
‘Correcting The Path of MDHS’
MDHS is also attempting to add Lobaki, a virtual-reality company in Jackson that allegedly received almost $800,000 in TANF funds from FRC and MCEC to start “a virtual reality academy.” The complaint says that Lobaki asked the nonprofits about the source of the funds, but neither organization answered the question. Prosecutors have not accused Lobaki of any crimes.
In order for MDHS to add additional defendants to the case, Hinds County Circuit Judge Faye Peterson must approve the motion.
In a statement on the amended complaint on Monday, MDHS Director Bob Anderson said the “agency will continue to be receptive to offers from other parties simply to repay the TANF funds, which they should not have received.”
“Gov. Tate Reeves tasked me with correcting the path of MDHS,” he said. “As part of that process, MDHS has been working hard to restore trust and put in place numerous internal controls to ensure that misspending is not repeated in the future.
“The rest of the task involves recovering and returning to the taxpayers the millions of dollars in misspent funds which were intended to benefit Mississippi’s needy families. We continue that task with this motion to file an amended civil complaint.”