The Mississippi fraud and embezzlement scheme, in which $77 million was funneled away from a program for needy families into other ventures, is the biggest public fraud case in the state's history.
Celebrated former Packers quarterback — and Mississippi native — Brett Favre has not been charged with a crime, but he's a prominent player in the story.
The saga includes former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who also hasn't been criminally charged. Text messages unearthed earlier this week cast doubt on the idea that Bryant and Favre were unaware of the illegality involved in some of their maneuvers.
The scandal centers around federal money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund, distributed as block grants to each of the 50 states. It potentially dates back to 2016, when Human Services executive John Davis began directing multimillion-dollar lump sum payments to the Mississippi Community Education Center, a nonprofit that theoretically would then determine how the TANF money could be used. Davis did not make director Nancy New report how she spent the money.
Davis and New have both been arrested for their involvement in what follows. Favre and his legal representative have denied wrongdoing.
Most of this timeline relies on reporting from Anna Wolfe of Mississippi Today and the outlet's special report "The Backchannel."
July 2017: Favre first meets with officials about funding volleyball facility for Southern Mississippi
Brett Favre, interested in helping to fund a new volleyball facility for his alma mater at the University of Southern Mississippi, first asks for funding from the Mississippi Department of Human Services during a meeting on campus. Favre's daughter, Breleigh, ultimately played both indoor and beach volleyball at the school.
Among those in attendance were members of the USM athletics staff, DHS director John Davis and Nancy New, the executive for nonprofit organization Mississippi Community Education Center.
August 2017: Text (unearthed in 2022) suggests Favre knew this could cause bad publicity
Favre sends a text to New asking, "If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?" followed by reassurance from New that those things wouldn't be made public and, a day later, that Gov. Phil Bryant is on board. These messages came to light Sept. 13, 2022.
October 2017: Funding for volleyball facility begins using federal dollars
New commits $5 million to Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation to rent all athletic facilities in a five-year lease agreement. Because TANF funds weren't permitted to be used for "brick and mortar" construction, the parties craft an agreement to satisfy federal law; as part of the deal, the foundation would use the facility (called the "Wellness Center") for programs to help needy families. One former employee said the facility was never used for that. The $5 million commitment is the biggest known single expenditure within the misspent $77 million.
New's MCEC pays the first lump sum of $2.5 million to USM in November, with another $2.5 million to follow in December. Favre was paid under an agreement to advertise for the welfare program $500,000 in 2017 and $600,000 in June of 2018, with that money expected to go toward the volleyball project.
June 2018: Construction on volleyball facility begins
Construction begins on the new volleyball facility, known as the "Wellness Center," initially projected as a $6 million project.
November 2018: Favre advises biomedical startup executive to reach out to Gov. Bryant
Favre, who become involved with a biomedical startup called Prevacus in 2014, advised the company's founder, Jacob VanLandingham, to reach out to Gov. Bryant via text for support. Favre wrote, "Don't know if legal or not, but we need to cut him in."
Later texts show that Bryant used his political clout to help get the startup off the ground by finding investors and gaining favor with federal regulators and was offered stock upon his departure from the governor position in 2020. Bryant denies ever accepting the stock.
Out of $135 million in federal aid from the TANF program in 2018, Mississippi spent just 5% ($7.3 million) on direct cash assistance to poor families. In the same year, Human Services gave $44 million of those funds to MCEC and another nonprofit.
January 2019: Favre looks for more funding and strikes deal with Nancy New for Prevacus
Still needing more money to finish the volleyball center, Favre reaches out hoping to meet with Davis and Bryant about more funding.
In a separate meeting with VanLandingham, Favre and New, the parties agree to direct grant funding to Prevacus, toward its development of an anti-concussion treatment. A payment of $750,000 was sent to Prevacus on Jan. 18, though a $1.7 million contract between MCEC and Prevacus wasn't signed until the next day.
June 2019: John Davis retires as director of Human Services, forced out behind the scenes
Davis, the director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services who directed money to Nancy New, retires early after 28 years with the agency. Behind the scenes, he'd been ousted by Gov. Bryant after a Human Services employee came forward with a tip about suspected fraud. Bryant appointed former FBI Special Agent in Charge, Christopher Freeze, to take Davis' place.
When Favre inquires how Davis' departure might impact the volleyball facility, Bryant texts back: “I will handle that… long story but had to make a change. But I will call Nancy and see what it will take."
Summer 2019: Volleyball facility still a topic in text messages
A text exchange from Bryant to New: “Just left Brett Favre. Can we help him with his project. We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course.”
In August, a text exchange suggests the new volleyball facility could even be named after Bryant. Bryant has denied steering funds illegally to the project.
September 2019: New and MCEC given more money shortly after meeting with Favre
Favre, New, Bryant and Freeze meet to discuss progress on the new volleyball facility again.
Two days after the meeting, New receives a letter informing her that the welfare agency was increasing her TANF subgrant by $1.1 million, which the letter said was for the purpose of reimbursing payments the nonprofit made to its partners.
November 2019: A new governor is elected
Tate Reeves is elected the next governor of Mississippi.
Bryant was completing his second and final term according to state law.
January 2020: Favre identified as a driving force behind the volleyball venue and Bryant seemingly prepared to invest in Prevacus
An Associated Press story cites Favre and his Favre4Hope Foundation as the driving force behind funds to build a volleyball center at Southern Miss.
Separately, now ex-governor Bryant has a text exchange with Jake VanLandingham about his company, Prevacus, and Bryant seems open to benefits from the company.
“Now that you’re unemployed I’d like to give you a company package for all your help,” VanLandingham writes in a Jan. 16, 2020, text. “…We want and need you on our team!!!”
“Sounds good,” responds Bryant, who was getting ready to take over a private-sector lobbying firm. “Where would be the best place to meet. I am now going to get on it hard…”
February 2020: State auditor announces charges of conspiracy
State auditor Shad White announces that former director of human services John Davis and nonprofit officials conspired to embezzle millions of dollars meant for services to poor Mississippians. Davis and colleague Latimer Smith are arrested, as are MCEC employees Nancy New, Zach New and Anne McGrew — the employees who were directing federal money inappropriately — as well as retired pro wrestler Brett DiBiase.
“The funds that were illegally obtained in this case were intended to help the poorest among us," White said. "The funds were instead taken by a group of influential people for their own benefit, and the scheme is massive. It ends today."
Davis and Smith are accused of manufacturing documents to funnel money to DiBiase from TANF; the invoices indicated the money compensated DiBiase for teaching classes about drug abuse, but DiBiase was in a luxury rehab facility for his own drug use in Malibu, California, and did not perform the services.
Nancy New and son Zach New were further accused of using TANF money to pay for personal investments in medical device companies in Florida.
A report from Mississippi Today reveals that $5 million in cash from the MCEC was used in the construction of the volleyball facility.
Bryant, the former governor, cuts ties with Prevacus following the arrests.
First half of 2020: Focus on Favre accelerates
In March, Favre denies that he discussed the volleyball center with Bryant in a text to Mississippi Today.
In May, anaudit reveals that $1.1 million has been paid to Favre Enterprises for speaking events in which he did not show, and the state ordered him to repay the misappropriated funds. Favre makes an initial payment of $500,000, but the office of auditor Shad White says Favre still owes an additional $600,000. White says there is no indication Favre knew the money he was receiving was meant for helping needy residents and applauded Favre's offer to pay it back.
"Upon a cursory review of those dates, auditors were able to determine that the individual contracted did not speak nor was he present for those events."
Favre denies that he was a no-show at the speaking events.
October 2021: Favre repays money to state of Mississippi
Favre repays the state of Mississippi the rest of the money but still owes $228,000 in interest in an as-yet unpaid cost. Favre reiterates on Facebook that he would never take money for no-show appearances.
April 2022: Zach and Nancy New reach plea agreement, turning over phone records
Zach New admits in a plea agreement to defrauding the government when he participated in a scheme to disguise the brick-and-mortar construction of the volleyball facility as a lease.
Nancy New pleads guilty to four counts of bribing a public official, two counts of fraud against the government, six counts of wire fraud and racketeering. Zach pled guilty to many of the same charges, and both agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against co-defendants, thus leading to many of the unearthed texts.
May 2022: Favre sued by Mississippi
Favre is sued by the Mississippi Human Services Department in an attempt to recoup $3.1 million from Favre, including payments made to Prevacus.
July 2022: Attorney fired after digging into involvement of USM, Favre and Bryant
Brad Pigott, a U.S. attorney representing the state's welfare agency, files a subpoena against the USM athletic foundation for communication with several key players, including Bryant and Favre.
Less than two weeks later, Pigott is fired from the case.
Pigott says he believes his firing was political; Human Services agency head Bob Anderson says Pigott was fired because he didn't consult with the agency before filing the subpoena naming a former governor. Mississippi Today obtained a July 1 email that showed Pigott sent a draft copy of the subpoena to both the attorney general's office and welfare agency's general counsel 10 days before filing.
September 2022: Texts unearthed, providing insight into Favre's communication with officials
Texts available in court filings between Nancy New and other players in the case, such as Favre and Bryant, see the light of day. Favre biographer Jeff Pearlman posts to Twitter that he'd ask people to not read his 2016 book "Gunslinger," calling Favre "a bad guy."
On Sept. 21, reports indicated that John Davis, the former director of human services, would also plead guilty to both state and federal charges.
On Sept. 23, Good Karma said it was pausing Favre's radio appearances in Milwaukee.
On Sept. 25, the AP reported that new documents showed Favre also texted Bryant about a new indoor football facility at USM. A report in The Athletic indicates that Favre's own Favre 4 Hope charity (ostensibly for cancer patients and disadvantaged kids) provided more money to USM than to any other charitable partner.
October 2022: Favre hires high-profile lawyer
According to Axios, Favre hires Eric Herschmann, a top White House lawyer to President Trump. There are still no criminal charges levied against Favre, and Herschmann says he does not believe Favre should be charged.
On Oct. 11, Favre releases a statement to Fox News Digital claiming he had been "unjustly smeared by the media" and reiterated that he didn't know money was being misappropriated from TANF for his requests and that he was never asked to appear at speaking engagements.
"No one ever told me, and I did not know, that funds designated for welfare recipients were going to the University or me," Favre stated. "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."
The article also quotes Mississippi State Auditor Shad White.
"Now, whether or not Mr. Favre knew that this money was specifically coming from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, there are no documents out in the public right now that suggest that," White said. "There are no documents that suggest that he knew the precise laws and regulations around TANF funds. But he did know it was government money, and he did know that it was coming from this agency. And of course, that agency is the agency that is responsible for handling programs that are geared toward helping the poor."
November 2022: Prevacus in the crosshairs
ESPN publishes a lengthy report about two concussion drug companies run by Jake VanLandingham, including Prevacus (for which Favre is a major investor). The companies received more than $2.1 million in funds earmarked for Mississippi welfare programs according to a civil lawsuit and exaggerated the known effectiveness of their drugs during fundraising.
December 2022: Lawsuit officially names Favre as it seeks reimbursement for volleyball money
The Mississippi Department of Human Services revises its demands against Brett Favre in its lawsuit against the quarterback, acknowledging that he paid the $1.1 million for unfulfilled public speeches. But the lawsuit now asks for up to $5 million from Favre and a university sports foundation, the money improperly channeled into the volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Text messages between Favre and new governor Tate Reeves are turned over to the Mississippi Free Press through an open records request. They show that Favre asked Reeves in 2020 about state funds to further pay for the volleyball facility; Favre still owed $1.6 million he had pledged once the facility was completed in early 2020.
January 2023: HBO's 'Real Sports' takes a deep dive on Favre
HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" spends a segment traveling to Mississippi to examine the Favre saga, including to his hometown of Kiln, where a statue, signage, paint jobs and resident testimonials showcase the love many Mississippians had or still have for Favre.
The segment featuring reporter David Scott and producer Max Gershberg interviews Shad White, the state auditor, and Christopher Freeze, the man appointed to replace disgraced former HHS director John Davis.
"This shows that something was wrong, and that you thought that it would be good for the public to not know what was going on here," White tells the HBO cameras, specifically referencing the infamous text in which Favre asked Nancy New if there was any way the media could find out about his activity.
Community leader Aisha Nyandoro points out Mississippi's poverty rate is at about 20%, highest in the country, and 9 out of 10 families who apply for assistance from TANF are rejected.
"And it's heartbreaking because I know what it does to someone's self-esteem and self of worth when they are constantly having to prove that they're poor enough to need assistance," she said.
Freeze said "It seems pretty brazen; you've got to read the room," when asked what he thought when Favre again asked for money even after Davis had left the position.
"To work with the agency in any capacity and work with a nonprofit … I don't see how you don't know that the money is welfare dollars," Freeze says.
Favre, who declined an interview request for the story, maintains that he did not know TANF funds were being accessed for his requests and has not been charged with a crime.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: A timeline of Brett Favre's involvement in Mississippi fraud case