The Marcus Dupree Foundation was created to provide “equestrian activities for underprivileged children,” but little evidence of the services exist and no one would answer questions about the program

By Anna Wolfe

Mississippi welfare officials wanted to give state residents a hand up, not a hand out.

For some Mississippi children, that meant offering them a chance to spend time with a 1980s-era star running back.

For Marcus Dupree, it meant covering the mortgage on his 15-acre ranch, which includes a five-bedroom home, in Madison County.

Through a Mississippi Department of Human Services initiative called Families First for Mississippi, run by two nonprofits, the state chose to use welfare dollars to heavily emphasize parenthood and fatherhood as opposed to providing direct assistance to families.

So the nonprofits hired Dupree, dubbed “the best that never was” by ESPN, to mentor Mississippi children. Dupree was a heavily sought-after high school recruit who, the story goes, was swindled by his agent and eventually injured, ending his professional career just as it began. In the 2010 ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on him, Dupree is portrayed as a 18-wheeler truck driver long removed from the limelight.

Dupree has since leveraged his local celebrity to form and boost organizations, such as his own Marcus Dupree Foundation also incorporated in 2010, with the stated mission of helping underprivileged children.

In April of 2018, less than a year after he partnered with the welfare-funded Families First program, the Dupree foundation purchased a five bedroom, 4,114 square foot residence in Flora. The county assessed the value of the property at approximately $395,000 for tax purposes while the foundation’s initial mortgage on the property totaled $684,000. One widely used real-estate site, Zillow, estimates the property’s value at nearly $900,000.

The same day, one of the Families First nonprofits, Mississippi Community Education Center, entered a six-year lease agreement to rent the ranch for $9,500. The rental payments were assigned to the bank as collateral for the loan; the agreement essentially promised to pay the mortgage for its term.

Dupree also earned at least $100,000 from the nonprofit as an employee on payroll.

The nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, founded by prominent private education contractor Nancy New, is at the center of sprawling public embezzlement allegations that rocked the state welfare department in early February.

Dupree was just one of a number of former athletes the nonprofit used welfare funds to benefit.

“I think it’s obvious to everyone following this case that some key individuals at DHS and some of the grantees simply didn’t care about the rules around spending welfare money. They were treating this money like it was their own slush fund,” State Auditor Shad White, who investigated the scheme, told Mississippi Today. “This is not to say every recipient of funds knew they were receiving welfare money. Some probably did not know. But the people handing out the money did know.”

Agents from White’s office arrested New, her son Zach New, John Davis, the former head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, and three others in early February as part of what it called the largest public embezzlement scheme in state history.

The News are accused of stealing millions of federal dollars intended to serve the poor and all six have pleaded not guilty. The arrests did not involve Dupree or his foundation.

White said he was aware of the Dupree property but could not comment further because the investigation, which now involves the FBI, is ongoing.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

The Marcus Dupree Foundation, which has no website, no profile on nonprofit databases and virtually no internet footprint besides its affiliation with Families First for Mississippi, owns a 15-acre property in Flora’s gated community called The Highlands. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

The ranch deal bears resemblance to the lease agreement New signed in 2017, which effectively paid $5 million to the Southern Miss Athletic Foundation, where New served as a board member, for the construction of a new volleyball facility, Mississippi Today reported in February.

The rent agreement for the Dupree property, attached to the deed in the county land records office, says Mississippi Community Education Center would continue to secure the bank loan until Mar. 31, 2024, unless the agreement is terminated. There is no termination filed within the deed record.

The Dupree foundation’s listed website is defunct and it does not appear to have filed the required nonprofit financial forms; no records appear on the IRS tax exempt organization search engine or on other databases Mississippi Today checked.

Approached at the property owned by the foundation on Wednesday afternoon, Dupree was doing yard work and refused to talk with reporters about his involvement with New’s nonprofit. “I was just an employee. That’s all I can say,” he told Mississippi Today before ordering the reporters to leave.

“You just don’t walk up on my property without getting shot,” Dupree said, standing next to a red gas canister and a burning pile of brush where a tree had collapsed.

It’s unclear how Human Services or New’s nonprofit, funded by government grants, mostly the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grant known as welfare, was utilizing the property it rented. A nonprofit representative Cassandra Williams did not return several calls for this story. She sent a statement by email that did not answer any questions about the lease on the ranch or the nonprofit’s work with the Dupree foundation.

“The current staff at MCEC cannot address questions that do not pertain to MCEC directly or to current MCEC programing,” the email said.

TANF is a federal block grant that states have broad authority to spend as they wish, as long as they meet one of four objectives: provide cash assistance to poor families, promote employment, prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage two-parent families.

In 2018, the state reported spending more of its welfare dollars on “Fatherhood and Two Parent Family Formation,” $40 million, than any other category, such as work training or work supports. It spent just $7 million on cash assistance for poor families. Meanwhile, Davis and New were traveling the country, gaining recognition for the welfare office’s “multi-generational, collaborative approach which addresses barriers associated with poverty.”

On Facebook, Dupree has posted many photos and videos of him and his family on the property, playing in the pool and riding his horses. One July post contains photos of eight children playing on the property with the caption, “I’m so blessed and thankful that I can allow kids to experience things at the Double Deuce Stables that they may not experience..Parenthood and Fatherhood #familiesfirstforms and The Marcus Dupree Foundation.”

A post the same month says Dupree “gave another horse away to a kid who loves horses.” Another from May shows a photo of a boy riding a horse, the property’s large pond in the background. “I will work on his correct placement of his feet the next time he comes,” Dupree wrote. These posts offer the only publicly available information about the Families First-related services he was delivering on the property. “Double Deuce Stables” has virtually no internet footprint in Mississippi. His foundation did not appear on the list of subcontract partners on Families First’s website before it shut down.

Human Services spokesperson Danny Blanton said the department had no information about Dupree’s foundation or any programs held on its property. “We can’t find anything. I think that just goes to show how shady MCEC’s reporting was. Obviously they withheld information,” he said.

The statement from the nonprofit contradicts this. “In fact, any funding and support provided by MCEC to a particular program, service or project was generally expressly directed by MDHS,” it said.

Clarion Ledger reported Mississippi Community Education Center paid Dupree nearly $105,000 over a nine month period, according to ledgers they obtained outlining how New’s nonprofit spent $14 million, including many purchases that did nothing to help disadvantaged Mississippians. The records show the nonprofit also purchased 100 DVDs of Dupree’s ESPN documentary as “give aways” totaling $1,000.

Dupree, a prolific Facebook poster, has cited “Families First” or used the hashtag in about four dozen posts since 2017. A video he posted last June shows Dupree walking through Mississippi Community Education Center’s main office, followed by video cameras from the local TV station. “We love Marcus; he’s doing a great job,” New says to the camera.

Families First for Mississippi is the umbrella term for services provided through a partnership between New’s nonprofit and Family Resource Center of Northeast Mississippi over the last few years. Human Services had funneled tens of millions of welfare dollars to these organizations since 2016. Dupree was on the payroll of each of the nonprofits, Blanton said.

Much of Dupree’s work with the taxpayer-funded nonprofits involves him delivering talks to schools around the state, according to social media posts and local news stories. “These days kids don’t respect teachers. They don’t respect their parents. And that’s kinda what Families First is about,” he said after an assembly at Bogue Chitto Elementary School in a video uploaded to YouTube in October of 2017.

Another video he posted in September of 2019 shows a classroom of Madison-Ridgeland Academy students watching a clip from Dupree’s “30 for 30” documentary with highlights of the athlete’s greatest plays. When it’s finished, Dupree speaks. “I work with Families First. We talk about making the right choices,” he said. “We’re supposed to listen to our parents. We’re supposed to listen to our teachers. We’re supposed to listen to older people. And say, ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir.'”

The Maywood Branch of the State Bank & Trust Company is the lender for Marcus Dupree Foundation’s ranch. The bank’s loan officer for the property did not return several calls to Mississippi Today.

Tax records show the Dupree foundation owes about $5,600 in taxes on the property and the local homeowner’s association has filed a lien against his property for unpaid fees.

Kimberly Funchess, whom Dupree identified as his wife to Mississippi Today, incorporated the Marcus Dupree Foundation as a nonprofit business with the Secretary of State in 2010. While it is in good standing, it has no listed officers.

Funchess resigned as the registered agent in June.

Separate charity filings for Marcus Dupree Foundation say its mission is “to provide exposure to athletics and equestrian activities for underprivileged children by conducting camps and educational programs to emphasize health and wellness.” That filing has since expired.

The website listed for the foundation is now defunct.

Mississippi Community Education Center also employed Funchess, according to a Crystal Springs event listing and Facebook posts that have been deleted.

Dupree told Mississippi Today anyone trying to contact him must go through Funchess. The woman who answered calls to her publicly listed number threatened to report the Mississippi Today reporter for harassment before hanging up.

Before this story published, someone representing themselves as attorney Dow Yoder texted a Mississippi Today reporter from an icloud account indicating Dupree had asked him to contact the reporter about the story.

“The mortgage is paid by earned income. Mr. Dupree earns income from various sources annually. Mr. Dupree was a W-2 employee of the Family Resource Center and MCEC. It is salacious and erroneous to print that that mortgage is paid by MCEC,” he texted, followed by his contact information.

When asked if he would discuss the story and the lease agreement by phone, the person responded with crude messages about bodily functions and hemp and did not answer or return calls made to his office.

While Families First for Mississippi and much of Mississippi Community Education Center’s operations have ceased, Dupree is keeping busy, boasting the launch of a marijuana business called Boomer Kush and a film project.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.