Gov. Phil Bryant speaks to an audience during MEC's Capital Day 2019 at the Jackson Marriott Thursday, January 10, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

A former professional wrestler and defendant in the Mississippi welfare scandal is alleging that he personally witnessed Republican Gov. Phil Bryant instruct an appointee to cut welfare funding to a nonprofit because its director supported Democrat Jim Hood in the 2019 governor’s race.

The allegation that Bryant leveraged his control of welfare spending to punish a political opponent comes in a two-year-old federal court filing released Friday after Mississippi Today successfully motioned to unseal the case.

The account echoes a similar allegation Mississippi Today published just over a week ago that the same nonprofit was forced to fire Hood’s wife in order to keep receiving welfare grant funding.

Former WWE wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. had received millions of federal welfare dollars to conduct various anti-poverty services for two private nonprofits when suddenly, the state allegedly pulled the program.

Federal authorities, who are attempting to seize DiBiase’s house because of his alleged role in the welfare scheme, say the Mississippi Department of Human Services “abandoned” the program and the wrestler failed to perform the work under his contracts. The federal complaint against DiBiase mirrors new federal charges that former welfare director John Davis pleaded guilty to on Thursday.

But what actually happened, DiBiase says, is that in 2019, Gov. Bryant directed Davis to discontinue the agency’s partnership with nonprofit Family Resource Center of North Mississippi because of its connection to Democrats in the state. 

Family Resource Center director Christi Webb was an outspoken supporter of her friend and then-Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat who was running against Republican then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves for governor in 2019. That year, the term-limited Bryant, who still oversaw the welfare agency, also worked hard on the campaign trail to get Reeves elected to the Governor’s Mansion.

FRC was one of two nonprofits that funded the wrestler. DiBiase said his program, called the “RISE” program, was then moved out from under the private nonprofits to the state agency.

“Shortly before John Davis retired in mid-2019, he indicated … that the RISE program would be taken ‘in-house’ and overseen at MDHS as opposed to being overseen by FRC or MCEC,” reads DiBiase’s Aug. 10, 2020, answer to the federal complaint for forfeiture against him. “Upon information and belief, this occurred as a result of the Governor directing John Davis to cease funding and working with FRC because FRC’s Executive Director, Christi Webb, was openly supporting Jim Hood in the race for Mississippi Governor.”

“The claimant, who witnessed Bryant give that direction to Davis, was subsequently informed by Davis that his contracts with FRC would be moved to MCEC,” the filing continued. “This did not affect Claimant’s performance under the contract.”

Former Gov. Phil Bryant, left, and welfare grant recipient and former WWE wrestler Ted “Teddy” DiBiase pose for a photo.

Teddy DiBiase made this claim in his response to a federal forfeiture complaint the U.S. Department of Justice filed against him in 2020 alleging he entered fraudulent contracts in order to obtain welfare funds. Mississippi Today motioned to unseal the case on Aug. 18. 

U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball dismissed the U.S. Department of Justice’s initial complaint against Teddy DiBiase in 2021, after his lawyers successfully argued that the complaint failed to allege a crime, and allowed the government to enter an amended complaint in August. Teddy DiBiase argues that he completed the work the nonprofits paid him to conduct, therefore earning the money legally.

Teddy DiBiase Jr.’s allegation against Bryant adds to claims that the former governor used his power to influence welfare spending, not just to benefit political allies, but to punish a Democratic opponent.

Officials have not charged Bryant civilly or criminally.

The state prosecutor who secured a guilty plea from Davis last week said investigators have their sights set on higher level officials as the welfare probe continues.

“We’re still looking through records and text messages as we continue to move up,” Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens said after Davis’ guilty plea Thursday. “We also continue to work with the federal authorities in Washington and in Mississippi. John Davis is critical because the ladder continues to move up.”

Mississippi Today first reported a similar allegation from Webb that a local lawmaker had threatened her on Bryant’s behalf to fire Hood’s wife Debbie Hood in order to keep receiving funding from the state. Webb said she relayed the news to Debbie Hood, who agreed to resign. Hood’s campaign manager Michael Rejebian said Debbie Hood confirmed the account. Webb also alleged that she eventually refused to continue paying the DiBiases, which angered Davis.

READ MORE: Welfare defendant alleges Gov. Phil Bryant used federal funds to hurt political rival

Family Resource Center’s original founder, Cathy Grace, was also running as a Democrat in 2019 for a local House seat against Republican Rep. Shane Aguirre, R-Tupelo, who worked for FRC as an accountant in charge of reviewing invoices from its partners. Aguirre told Mississippi Today he did not work on or review the DiBiase projects.

Teddy DiBiase Jr. is the son of WWE legend Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase Sr. His younger brother, Brett DiBiase, also received welfare funds and pleaded guilty to his role in the fraud scheme in 2020. Through various contracts with the men, as well as Ted DiBiase Sr.’s Christian ministry, the DiBiase family received over $5 million in welfare funds.

In the 2020 ongoing forfeiture complaint against Teddy DiBiase, federal authorities are attempting to seize his $1.5 million French-colonial lakeside home in the Madison community of Reunion, Clarion Ledger first reported. Prosecutors say he purchased the property with money obtained from the state’s welfare program — a total of over $3 million, according to the state auditor. At the time in 2020, the complaint contained details of an ongoing investigation.

Davis pleaded guilty on Sept. 22 to two federal charges — one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of theft — related to these payments to Teddy DiBiase. Mississippi Today identified one of the four unnamed alleged co-conspirators in the charges against Davis as Teddy DiBiase. 

Teddy DiBiase Jr. and Ted DiBiase Sr. have not publicly faced criminal charges, though they are targets of an ongoing state civil case that attempts to recoup misspent welfare funds.

All of the charges are part of a wider scandal that resulted in the misspending of $77 million in federal welfare funds. The money flowed through Family Resource Center of North Mississippi and another nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, founded by defendant Nancy New. New, who has pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud, was a friend of Bryant’s wife.

The two nonprofits were running a statewide program called Families First for Mississippi.

Filings in the federal forfeiture case against Teddy DiBiase Jr. outline several alleged events:

June 2017: Teddy DiBiase’s company Priceless Ventures signed a contract with FRC and MCEC for $250,000 to “act as a ‘leadership training coordinator’” for Families First for Mississippi. FRC paid the retired wrestler in full on June 1, 2017, the first day of the contract period.

August 2017: FRC paid Ted DiBiase Sr. $250,000, near the beginning of a year-long contract to be a motivational speaker for Families First.

May 2018: Teddy DiBiase’s company Priceless Ventures signed a contract with FRC for $500,000. MCEC paid $500,000 on May 17, 2018. He “performed no significant work under this leadership outreach contract,” the complaint alleges, “but instead merely provided one or two training sessions — an immaterial amount of work that fell far short of what the contract required.”

July 2018: FRC paid Priceless Ventures nearly $500,000 in emergency food assistance funds on July 13, 2018, for a contract that was supposed to run from May 2018 to September 2018. “The only work DiBiase Jr. completed on this contract was to send a list of food pantry locations to FRC,” the filing alleged.

October 2018: Priceless Ventures signed a $130,000 contract with MCEC to create a personal development training program. MCEC eventually paid the company $199,500 under this contract.

December 2018: MDHS signed a $48,000 contract with Brett DiBiase to conduct training sessions on opioid addiction from December 2018 to June 2019. 

February 2019: Brett DiBiase began treatment at a luxury drug rehabilitation center in Malibu called RISE, where he would receive therapy for four months. Davis directed MCEC to make four $40,000 payments to the facility.

The federal complaint alleges that Teddy DiBiase used the money from the Family Resource Center contracts to make a more than $400,000 down payment on his Madison home. Teddy DiBiase denies the assertion that he failed to complete the work for which he was hired.

The federal complaint also uses Davis’ text messages to establish the close relationship that the government bureaucrat developed with the DiBiase family, such as Davis telling his administrative assistant that he “loves B. DIBIASE like his own child,” the amended complaint reads. Davis also pleaded guilty last week to charges related to welfare payments to Brett DiBiase and to pay for his drug rehab stint.

As Mississippi Today previously reported, Davis and Teddy DiBiase swapped Christian devotionals, traveled out of state and exercised at the gym together. Davis frequently texted the older brother, “I love you.” The welfare director flew across the country to visit Brett DiBiase while he was in drug rehab, discussed his treatment options with a specialist and called him the “son I never had.” When not together, they shared long, late-night phone calls, phone records show.

While Teddy DiBiase Jr. was never a payroll employee of the state welfare agency — only a contractor of the welfare-funded private nonprofits — he occupied one of the largest offices inside the private downtown high-rise where Davis relocated MDHS offices after he became director.

Under one of the contracts, Teddy DiBiase was supposed to accomplish several things, including meeting “the multiple needs of inner-city youth”; identifying services for “successfully linking the youth served with opportunities for self-sufficiency and independence”; providing feedback about “parents as they pursue skill-building and education that lead to better jobs”; and helping employers on “improving opportunity and outcomes in the workforce.”

Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr. appears in a 2019 internal Mississippi Department of Human Services video message to agency workers.

In Mississippi, nearly one in five people live in poverty. Average wages in the state, as well as the state’s workforce participation rate, are among the lowest in the nation. Teddy DiBiase’s contract illustrates both the state’s frenetic emphasis on workforce development and its disregard for whether the programs it supports actually produce the desired outcomes.

In this case, the U.S. Department of Justice contends the actions were illegal.

Davis and DiBiase Jr. entered into the workforce-related contracts, according to the federal complaint, “even though DAVIS and DIBIASE JR. knew, at the inception of the contract … that, in fact, no significant services would be performed under the contract and that the actual purpose of entering into the contract and disbursing funds under it was to enrich DIBIASE JR. by stealing and misapplying funds under the federally-funded contract.”

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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.