More than two years after we learned of Brett Favre’s involvement in one of the most stunning embezzlement scandals in Mississippi history, he’s now one of 38 defendants accused of misusing welfare funds intended to alleviate poverty in the most impoverished state in the nation.
Favre’s alleged role in the scheme is tied to his relationship with Nancy New, a nonprofit director who had access to millions in welfare funds, and John Davis, the former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) who allocated the money in the first place — including $68 million in federal welfare money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
Though TANF funding should be used to provide meaningful help for Mississippi’s low-income families, New’s nonprofit allegedly invested millions into retired athletes’ pet projects, including at least $8 million allegedly tied to Favre’s business endeavors and a new athletic facility at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi.
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Favre maintains he didn’t know any of that money was funded by TANF dollars. What he and his defenders are missing, however, is that his responsibility in this situation isn’t about whether the money came from a specific federal grant. He solicited money from an anti-poverty nonprofit funded by Mississippi’s welfare agency. Almost every federal dollar MDHS receives is intended to help the state’s most vulnerable people, not its most privileged, and it’s time to stop giving Favre a pass for what he didn’t know and start holding him accountable for what he did know.
For starters, he knew he was paid $1.1 million by New’s nonprofit for event appearances and speaking engagements he didn’t perform (which he’s since repaid to MDHS). He knew that same nonprofit allegedly allocated $5 million at his request toward building a new volleyball facility at Southern Miss, where Favre’s daughter just happened to be a member of the team. Hattiesburg is a college town with one of the highest poverty rates in the state, and instead of using resources to help its poorest residents, MDHS put millions toward making Favre look like a hometown hero coming through for his alma mater.
He knew to go back to Davis and New when seeking investors for Prevacus, a start-up drug company specializing in concussion treatment. After investing $1 million of his own money and trying (and failing) to get the NFL on board, Favre and his business partner turned to Gov. Phil Bryant for help getting Prevacus off the ground quickly.
Two days after meeting with the governor, Favre sent the following text to Prevacus founder Jake Vanlandingham, as reported by nonprofit news outlet Mississippi Today.
“Text Nancy (New) and include me if you want and basically ask her if she can help with investors, grants or any other way possible. She has strong connections and gave me 5 million for Vball facility via grant money. Offer her whatever you feel like.”
After Vanlandingham connected with New, Favre made it clear he knew exactly how they could get money for the start-up.
“I believe if it’s possible she and John Davis would use federal grant money for Prevacus.”
And just like that, New and Davis committed $2.1 million in welfare money to a project that did nothing to alleviate Mississippi’s ongoing poverty crisis. (It’s worth mentioning that of the $135 million in TANF funding Mississippi received in 2018, only $7.3 million of that went toward direct cash assistance for low-income families.)
Perhaps most tellingly, Favre knew the challenges that faced him when the governor replaced Davis with a new MDHS director who started paying attention to where the money was going.
“Nancy (New) said (Christopher Freeze, the new MDHS director) ain’t our type,” Favre texted Vanlandingham, as reported by Mississippi Today.
“Well we may need the governor to make him our type,” Vanlandingham replied.
Not exactly the strongest case for someone claiming total ignorance.
Instead of owning up to it and using what he knew to shed light on one of the most damaging public corruption cases in state history, he chose to evade reporters while picking public fights with the state auditor who led the investigation.
Maybe he didn’t work overtime to clear his name because he’s used to playing the role of Mississippi’s chosen son. He’s Brett Favre, after all! The pride of Hancock County. The Golden Eagle with the golden arm. He’d never do anything to hurt the state he loves.
It’s easy to love Mississippi when you don’t have to acknowledge how many of its people are struggling to keep the lights on. You never have to look in the eyes of a child begging a cafeteria worker for seconds because the cupboards are bare at home. You don’t have to tell a single mother she’s not entitled to child-care assistance until she sues her child’s father for support and her only choices are to quit her job or leave her babies home alone so she can earn a paycheck.
It’s easy to love Mississippi when your Mississippi is a place of privilege and opportunity.
It’s a lot harder when people like Favre benefit from decades of good-old-boy corruption while the state remains the worst place in the nation to be a mother or child. First in infant mortality, child poverty and food insecurity. Nearly dead last in education, healthcare and just about everything else that matters. Welfare officials had access to millions of dollars to do a lot of good for a lot of people. Instead, they opted to be an ATM to one of the wealthiest Mississippians alive just to be able to say, “Brett Favre knows who I am.”
It doesn’t matter if Favre was never told the money he solicited was meant to help Mississippi’s poorest families. There’s a reason he didn’t work with a different agency. There’s a reason he bypassed the process of private fundraising or recruiting outside investors. Through Mississippi’s welfare system, he gained access to money no one was watching and he followed it until someone finally looked up.
We all know Favre won’t struggle to shake off the negative publicity of this story. It will eventually become a Wikipedia footnote and everyone will return to writing about his divisive podcast or latest endorsement deal. But he owes a lot more to the state of Mississippi than just money, namely the basic respect of not ignoring the ongoing crises that keep it at the bottom of every good list and the top of every bad one.
If Brett Favre loves Mississippi half as much as he says he does, he should use his influence to hold its leaders accountable and help its most vulnerable people. Because loving something and knowingly contributing to its suffering is the one debt you can’t repay.
For the latest on Mississippi’s welfare scandal, read The Backchannel from investigative reporter Anna Wolfe and Mississippi Today.