Former Gov. Phil Bryant has publicly produced dozens of text messages in an attempt to prove he was unaware that former NFL quarterback Brett Favre was using welfare money for his volleyball project.
The court documents filed Friday come within a court battle between Bryant and the attorney for nonprofit founder Nancy New over whether Bryant should have to produce any more of his communication regarding the welfare-funded volleyball stadium.
In response to a state civil complaint against her, New alleged in July that she had the approval and direction from the governor and other welfare officials to make the allegedly illegal purchases.
Bryant now objects to turning over any more records that New’s attorney Gerry Bufkin has subpoenaed in order to argue New’s defense.
In the latest filing, Bryant’s newly-hired attorney Billy Quin suggests Bufkin lacks the evidence to prove Bryant directed New’s payments – yet the purpose of Bufkin’s subpoena is to obtain additional evidence.
The most-recently filed texts, which were selected by Bryant’s attorney and do not reflect the entirety of communication that exists, show Bryant and Favre discussed in 2017 raising private donations to build a state-of-the-art volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi — both men’s alma mater.
“Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Governor Bryant, New and Favre were pursuing MDHS funds for the USM Volleyball Center,” Bryant’s filing reads.
Other key arguments Bryant’s attorney made in the latest court filing include:
- Bryant was unaware of the 2017 plans that Favre, New and Davis had allegedly made to secure welfare funds from the state for the volleyball stadium — including plans to pass welfare funds through a lease with the USM Athletic Foundation to skirt federal regulations.
- Bryant warned Favre in September 2019 after a meeting the two had about the volleyball center: “We are going to get there. This was a great meeting. But we have to follow the law. I am to[o] old for Federal Prison. [smiley face, sunglasses emoji].”
- Bryant asked that if the court compels him to produce all his text messages regarding the USM volleyball center, the records should be kept from the public and from the press.
The filing suggests Bryant’s appointed welfare director, John Davis, who pleaded guilty this week to state and federal charges, instantaneously committed $4 million in federal welfare funds to the Favre volleyball project without his boss’s knowledge. The filing produces no texts between Bryant and Davis.
The texts shed more light on the pressure that Favre and New attempted to place on Bryant in 2019 in order to secure even more money from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, an agency under Bryant’s control. They even proposed naming the facility after Bryant — a gesture that was meant to be a surprise, but, “Due to the urgency in getting this secured, we felt it appropriate to share,” they wrote in a proposal.
“She’s relentless,” the governor’s attorney texted Bryant in September of 2019.
“Nancy is worrying,” Bryant responded. “She know[s] what they were doing was wrong.”
Knowing that the auditor’s office was investigating welfare spending, Bryant spoke frankly to Favre about their need to follow federal spending regulations and agency regulations around contract procurement.
“We are going to get there. This was a great meeting,” Bryant texted Favre in September of 2019, directly after they met with Christopher Freeze, the welfare director who replaced Davis after Davis was suspected of defrauding the agency. “But we have to follow the law. I am to[o] old for Federal Prison. [smiley face, sunglasses emoji].”
Texts indicate that during this time in late 2019, Bryant had shifted normal course. “Until Audit has [completed] its work I am staying out of all decisions that the agency will make,” Bryant texted New, according to the most recent filing.
The text messages appearing in this story are quoted from Bryant’s court filing, with editing from his attorney.
In 2017 and 2018, New’s nonprofit paid $5 million to the volleyball construction and $1.1 million to Favre directly. But by 2019, builders needed more funding to complete the project, and Favre became worried that he would be left holding the bag, as he was the one who initially committed the funds. As investigators cracked down on Mississippi Department of Human Services and the New nonprofit, the welfare funding dried up and Favre began talking to other state agencies about getting the rest of the money to finish the project. It’s unclear what, if any, other public money wound up going to the volleyball project.
Nancy New’s son Zach New pleaded guilty in April to defrauding the government by acting “with John Davis 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.”
The Favre-related payments reflect a small portion of a scheme to misspend $77 million in funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program during the last four years of Bryant’s administration. Most of the money flowed through two nonprofits who were running a state-sanctioned anti-poverty program called Families First for Mississippi, which Favre references in texts to Bryant.
According to the filing, Favre first reached out to Bryant about fundraising in April of 2017.
“Deanna and I are building a volleyball facility on campus and I need your influence somehow to get donations and or sponsorships. Obviously Southern has no money so I’m hustling to get it raised,” Favre texted the governor.
“We will have that thing built before you know it,” Bryant responded.
In July of 2017, Davis, New and Favre met with University of Southern Mississippi officials to discuss the welfare department supporting the volleyball stadium construction. Not long after, New texted Favre that she had “just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with us! We will get this done!”
“New did not tell Governor Bryant that she and Davis had arranged to contribute $4 million in TANF funds to the project,” Bryant’s filing reads. “She simply explained that she was helping Favre gain university approval of the project and it appeared the university would ultimately approve it. Just as he had indicated to Favre, Bryant told New that he would assist them in raising private donations and corporate sponsorships to help fund the project.”
The project involved New’s nonprofit entering a five-year, $5 million lease of the university’s athletic facilities, which it would purportedly use to provide programming to the community’s underserved population. The filing explains that the lease agreement was approved by university attorneys, then the Institutes for Higher Learning’s appointed Attorney General’s Office attorney. A USM announcement said the project would be funded by Mississippi Community Education Center and private donations.
Later, in May of 2018, Favre reached out again to Gov. Bryant for help constructing lockers for the facility.
“I’m still trying to save money on [the] Vball facility,” Favre texted.
Favre even suggested “the prison industry possibly as a builder.”
HGTV star and woodworker Ben Napier assisted with constructing the lockers on Bryant’s request, according to the filing.
The filing says Bryant first learned that the welfare department had funded the volleyball project through a text Favre sent him in July of 2019, after Bryant had ousted Davis from office.
“I’m on [my] way and I’m sure I won’t have time [or] privacy enough to speak about this so I want you to know how much I love Nancy New and John Davis,” Favre texted Bryant, according to the filing. “What they have done for me and Southern Miss is amazing. Her family’s first is incredible and she cares. We were planning to do workshops and youth clinics in the new Vball facility with her families first kids. And also[,] I paid for 3/4 of Vball facility and the rest was a joint project with her and John which was saving me 1.8 million. I was informed today that she may not be able to fund her part. I and we need your help very badly Governor and sorry to even bring this up.”
The filing notes that while Bryant had no reason to question Favre’s characterization of the funding, Favre’s message was inaccurate, considering the welfare department had paid much more than $1.8 million.
“Moreover, based on the content and tenor of Favre’s text message, it is also apparent that Governor Bryant did not know what had previously transpired between New, Davis, and Favre regarding the funding of the USM Volleyball Center,” the filing reads. “If, as MCEC and certain press members have insinuated, Governor Bryant was directing the funding for the project, why did Favre provide him a synopsis of the project’s funding history? And why did Favre provide details of the funding history to the governor? Regardless of the answer to these questions, the record is clear that USM and its attorneys, the IHL Board, and the state attorney general’s office all approved a $5 million payment of TANF funds from MCEC to construct the facility without Governor Bryant’s involvement.”
At this point, however, Bryant did begin aiding Favre and New in their efforts to seek additional funding from the welfare department.
New sent the proposal to the governor’s office – with a project title of “The Dewey Phillip Bryant Center for Excellence at the University of Southern Mississippi focusing on Obesity, Bullying Prevention and Personal Development Project.” Bryant suggested ways to reword the proposal to pass muster at the department.
Favre texted New, ‘[the Governor] said to me just a second ago that he has seen [the funding proposal] but hint hint that you need to reword it to get it accepted,” reads Bufkin’s Sept. 12 motion.
But by 2020, Bryant’s filing says, the governor had instructed Freeze to cease payments to New’s nonprofit.
This appears to conflict with State Auditor Shad White’s statement that the February 2020 arrests were necessary in order to stop the flow of funds to the perpetrators.
“Just his (Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens’) decision alone to indict those individuals, who we then arrested, likely saved the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars of welfare funds because we know now that more money was prepared to be pumped out to those same individuals who have today plead guilty to fraud,” White said after Davis’ plea hearing Thursday.
A review of state expenditures shows that Mississippi Community Education Center received its last TANF payment of nearly $1.4 million on Dec. 6, 2019, though the nonprofit did receive a few smaller food assistance payments after that time.
After Bryant left office in early 2020, the filing explains that Favre continued to push for Bryant’s help, and Bryant consulted Favre about lobbying the Legislature for bonds to finish out the volleyball construction.
Bryant also talked to then-USM President Rodney Bennett about the predicament.
“I’ve asked Brett not to do the things he’s doing to seek funding from state agencies and the legislature for the volleyball facility,” Bennett texted Bryant in late January 2020, according to the filing. “As you know, IHL has a process of how we request and get approval for projects and what he’s doing is outside those guidelines. I will see, for the ‘umpteenth time’ if we can get him to stand down. The bottom line is he personally guaranteed the project, and on his word and handshake we proceeded. It’s time for him to pay up – it really is just that simple.”
After the auditor’s office arrested New and Davis in February of 2020, Favre again asked if Bryant had spoken to the incoming Gov. Tate Reeves about the project. Bryant forwarded a link to a story about the embezzlement case to Favre, saying, “This has been the problem. Not sure what funding will be available in the future.”
Bryant then again encouraged Favre to meet with Reeves to explore a bond bill.
Bryant’s latest court filing in the state’s ongoing civil suit is an objection to a motion to compel that Bufkin filed on behalf of New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center. Bufkin wants Bryant to publicly produce all of his communication surrounding the volleyball deal. Bryant’s attorney Billy Quin argues the information is privileged and irrelevant to the civil suit.
While the volleyball stadium is not a subject of the state’s civil suit, Mississippi Department of Human Services is suing New and Favre over the $1.1 million payment New’s nonprofit made to Favre under a promotional agreement. The suit also targets over $2 million in welfare payments to a pharmaceutical start-up company called Prevacus, another project on which Favre and Bryant worked together.
Texts show Favre suggested New pay him $1.1 million under an advertising contract as a way to get more money to the volleyball project. This is one way Bufkin is arguing the relevancy of Bryant’s involvement in the volleyball stadium to the allegations against his clients.
“Governor Bryant was not involved in crafting the (advertising) arrangement, and he had no knowledge of its existence. Clearly, the concept of passing through funds to USM was not Governor Bryant’s idea,” Bryant’s filing reads.
Bufkin filed the original subpoena on July 25; Quin wrote a letter objecting to the subpoena on Aug. 26; and Bufkin filed the motion to compel on Sept. 12, attaching several text messages between New, Favre and Bryant. Bufkin’s filing made national airwaves, catapulting the Mississippi welfare scandal into every major national news outlet.
“MCEC filed the present motion and attached numerous text messages to create a media frenzy that distracts from New’s felonious conduct,” Bryant’s latest filing reads. “MCEC’s primary intention with the present motion is not to seek legitimate discovery, but rather to create a media circus. The purpose of this response is to set the record straight regarding Governor Bryant’s knowledge of and involvement with the USM Volleyball Center project.”
Bryant’s filing also asks the court to quash the subpoena or to place any subpoenaed documents under a protective order. He also asks that the court sanction the nonprofit for abusing their subpoena power.
Quin argues that any more text messages Bryant might be required to produce should be shielded from the public because of how they may be portrayed in the media.
“In a court of law, Governor Bryant has the right to respond to unfounded or misguided allegations before an impartial court,” the motion reads. “This is not true with the media. Media members sometimes carry biases and unfounded and unfair opinions that impact their work. Instead of impartially seeking the truth, the media member sometimes seeks to reinforce her already-existing beliefs, however unfounded they may be. This can result in a social media echo-chamber of confirmation bias that unduly influences court proceedings and biases potential jurors against parties and/or witnesses. And this influence threatens the integrity of this court’s proceedings.”
Editor’s note: Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau’s mother signed off on the language of a lease agreement to construct a University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium. Read more about that here.