Last week, NFL legend Brett Favre made headlines again when his attorney confirmed to NBC News that the FBI had questioned the former quarterback.
Favre was the inspiration behind $8 million worth of purchases in an ongoing welfare scandal that the FBI began investigating in 2020. But the athlete’s exchange with federal agents, which took place more than two years ago, was apparently so innocuous that Favre laughed about it later.
“Brett laughingly told me that FBI asked if he’d ever been to Tupelo,” said Favre’s attorney Bud Holmes.
A nonprofit funded by welfare grants had paid Favre’s company Favre Enterprises $1.1 million for a vague promotional gig. Favre has since returned the funds to the state. Ongoing civil charges against Favre allege that the athlete was paid under an agreement to deliver speeches he never gave, an agreement attorneys say Favre was unaware existed.
Now, Favre’s attorneys are questioning whether the athlete can be held liable for failing to attend events he knew nothing about – such as an assembly in Tupelo, the singular interest of the FBI, according to Holmes.
Mississippi Today spoke with Holmes, a Hattiesburg lawyer who has represented pro athletes in Mississippi for decades, on Sept. 2, the day after the NBC story.
Holmes said that the FBI briefly questioned Favre more than two years ago — before the breadth of Favre’s alleged involvement in the massive welfare scandal was publicly uncovered by Mississippi Today earlier this year — and that Favre hasn’t talked to agents since.
As far as Holmes is aware, the authorities asked Favre one question.
“The agents asked him, ‘Have you ever been to Tupelo,’” Holmes said. “And Brett says, ‘When I was nine years old with my daddy. Why? What’s that about?’ They says, ‘You’ve never been to Tupelo?’ Course come to find out later, they say he had a no-show. Hell, if he did no-show in Tupelo, it would have been headlines.”
The nonprofit at the center of the welfare scandal, Mississippi Community Education Center, hired Favre’s company Favre Enterprises in 2017 and 2018 purportedly to promote Families First for Mississippi, a program that was supposed to help needy families but instead facilitated the misspending of tens of millions of federal welfare funds.
National headlines have focused on how Favre allegedly received $1.1 million in exchange for delivering speeches at events he never attended – but Favre disputes that he ever agreed to attend any events.
“How in the world are you going to hold me liable for something where nobody told me to where to be,” Holmes said. “Favre had absolutely no knowledge of it … It was up to them to designate when and where.”
The contract that State Auditor Shad White has used to make this allegation has never been made public until now, and the appearance of the document raises questions about the veracity of the agreement.
The three-paragraph scope of services in the alleged contract describes the services Favre was apparently supposed to perform: Speak at three events, cut one radio spot, and deliver one keynote address. The auditor’s office discussed these items in its report released in 2020.
According to the agreement, one example of an event Favre may have been expected to attend was Gov. Phil Bryant’s “Healthy Teens” rallies – one of which took place in Tupelo in 2018.
“Governor Phil Bryant spearheaded an initiative called ‘Healthy Teens for A Better Mississippi’ and Families First is expanding that program through rallies, to motivate teenagers to set goals and make responsible choices in areas impacting their health and future,” reads an WCBI article about the Tupelo rally.
Favre did not attend.
Nancy New, the nonprofit founder who has since pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud, recently alleged that Bryant was the one who directed her to pay Favre.
Around the time of the payments to Favre Enterprises, Favre was also working with New and Bryant’s appointed welfare director John Davis to find a way to use welfare money to build a new volleyball stadium at his alma mater, University of Southern Mississippi. Officials had to carefully craft a lease agreement between the nonprofit and the university’s athletic foundation, since there is a federal prohibition on using welfare grants for brick and mortar. For the project to cohere to the welfare program, the lease agreement said Families First would use the facility for programming, though that never occurred.
“She has strong connections and gave me 5 million for Vball facility via grant money,” Favre once wrote to a business associate, referring to Nancy New.
Holmes said according to Favre, the athlete met with the FBI when agents from the auditor’s office were interviewing Favre and asked if the FBI could join.
Holmes said he wasn’t aware of the FBI asking his client any other questions – such as about Favre’s role in facilitating the transfer of $5 million to build the volleyball stadium or $2 million to a pharmaceutical startup, two scenarios uncovered in Mississippi Today’s investigative series “The Backchannel.”
“That’s the only contact that I know of that he had with the FBI,” Holmes continued. “And that’s been what, two or three years ago, back toward the beginning … I just assumed they were starting the preliminary investigation on the many, many things people pled guilty to. Brett’s name happened to be in there.”
Holmes reiterated that he has not seen any evidence that Favre did anything wrong regarding welfare funds. The attorney said Favre was paid for services he performed – namely a commercial spot he recorded for the welfare program.
A 2018 invoice New’s nonprofit received from SuperTalk radio shows Favre’s Families First commercial ran more than two dozen times during a three-month period.
Favre has publicly rejected White’s notion that he was paid for work he didn’t conduct.
“I would never accept money for no-show appearances, as the state of Mississippi auditor, Shad White, claims,” Favre wrote in a social media post in 2021. “… for Shad White to continue to push out this lie that the money was for no-show events is something I cannot stay silent about.”
In a press conference White held to refute Favre’s statement, the auditor mentioned the contract by name.
“I was not in the room, but once we got in the room, our agents slid the contract across the table that described the things that Mr. Favre was supposed to do in order to be paid $1.1 million worth of welfare money,” White said. “The contract is very simple. We asked him in this meeting did you give these speeches, and his answer was no.”
White’s argument rested on the fact that the contract he possessed was a legit agreement – a notion Favre’s attorneys are now questioning.
The first page of the contract, a PDF document produced as part of discovery in the civil case, is an email Nancy New purportedly sent to her son Zach New in December of 2017. The email contains more detail about the scope of services. It says the ad recordings or tapings will be arranged as close as possible to Hattiesburg, Favre’s hometown. It cites the Governor’s “Healthy Teens for a Better Mississippi” rally as an example of a public appearance Favre will attend, but also specifies, “These are to be scheduled only upon available time of the client.”
The formatting of the email is irregular, one reason Favre’s attorneys are questioning its authenticity. The document does not say the email was delivered to Favre.
“When I saw it, I was like, ‘What is this?’” Bud’s daughter Mary Lee Holmes, the public prosecutor in Forrest County and an attorney on Favre’s defense team, told Mississippi Today. “This is just some informal email saying, ‘Hey you want to come be a spokesperson for Families First?”
In the email, the name of Favre Enterprises’ accountant Robert “Bobby” Culumber, described in the contract as the organization’s Chief Financial Officer, is misspelled “Lculumber.” The document provided to attorneys is also titled “Farve Enterprises,” a misspelling of Favre’s name.
“They’ve got Favre spelled wrong. I’m like, is this even a real thread? I want to see the metadata on this,” Mary Lee Holmes said.
The contract contains a signature from Bobby Culumber, which is misspelled “Bobbie” on the line where the name is printed. Documents from the Secretary of State’s Office show that Culumber’s signature – he usually uses his full first name Robert – looks much different from the signature on the Favre contract.
However, Culumber verified the contract and his signature in an email to the auditor’s office, according to emails obtained by Mississippi Today. Culumber, an accountant, also received a demand for repayment from the state auditor, but was not named as a defendant in the civil suit. He did not return calls to Mississippi Today Thursday.
The absence of a real written agreement could help Favre’s legal defense in the case of breach of contract charges – if there is no contract, there is no breach. But an admission to taking $1.1 million without a written agreement may not bode well for Favre either.
“If Favre’s attorneys are now suggesting he was paid over a million dollars of welfare money without a valid contract, the results are no different. Favre Enterprises should not have been paid and, therefore, must repay taxpayers $1.1 million—plus interest,” White said in a written statement to Mississippi Today. “I am astonished that Mr. Favre and his representatives continue to dig a deeper legal hole for themselves in the media.”
Mississippi Today asked Bud Holmes if Nancy New and Favre entered the advertising contract as a way to get money to the volleyball stadium, to which Holmes responded, “No, no, no, it’s nothing like that. If it is, I have not heard.”
READ MORE: ‘You stuck your neck out for me’: Brett Favre used fame and favors to pull welfare dollars
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Robert Culumber’s position with Favre Enterprises. He is the Chief Financial Officer, according to a contract. The story also misstated his involvement in the civil suit; while he was served a demand for repayment from the auditor’s office, he was not named in the court complaint.