Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre met resistance when he tried selling University of Southern Mississippi on a deal to accept federal grant money to build a volleyball stadium, texts show.
“Nancy I spoke with Jon Gilbert this evening and between you and I he is very Leary of accepting such a large grant. Got me very uneasy,” Favre texted Nancy New, owner of the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, which had been granted millions in federal welfare funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
Two days before this, Favre, New, USM Athletic Director Jon Gilbert, MDHS Director John Davis and others had met at the university to discuss the project. Davis, a subordinate of former Gov. Phil Bryant, verbally committed to providing $4 million in welfare funds to build the volleyball stadium.
“He did mention trying to find a way for John (Davis) to allocate money to an entity that could then give to us that would pay for brick and mortar. I passed same info to John and of course he sent back we will find a way to make it work,” Favre wrote.
Federal regulation strictly prohibits states from using funds from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – the fund MDHS Director John Davis had virtually outsourced to MCEC – on exactly the term Favre used, “brick and mortar,” or construction projects. University officials were apparently apprehensive about the maneuvering.
“My fear is he (Gilbert) doesn’t except all that you and John can allocate even if it is legally signed off on,” Favre texted New.
“They are scared to death it seems,” he also texted, referring to USM, according to the court filing.
Eventually, after conversations between the nonprofit officials, attorneys at MDHS and general counsel for the university, Favre got the greenlight. But only after the deal evolved to include an additional half-million for improvements to the basketball stadium Reed Green Coliseum.
New’s attorney Gerry Bufkin argues in a court document filed Friday that the evidence suggests Bryant may have had a hand in pushing the project into the end zone.
At this time in July of 2017, Nancy New had already entered a subgrant with the USM athletic foundation for around $200,000, which would be used to renovate another building on campus called M-Club. As the smaller of Mississippi’s big three universities, USM has historically had a harder time generating funds for these kinds of projects.
“It’s obvious that you and John are tremendous assets for USM and in order for us to get ahead in the game we have to utilize you guys in every way,” Favre texted New.
These new texts, revealed Friday and printed here exactly as they appear without correction, provide a further glimpse into how officials ended up funneling $5 million in welfare funds, money that’s supposed to serve the state’s neediest residents, into the construction of a volleyball stadium at USM. Nancy New’s son Zach New pleaded guilty to defrauding the government related to the expenditure in April.
But in the midst of Favre’s persistence, the project was also reviewed by many – MDHS attorneys, USM attorneys, the Attorney General’s Office, the Institutions of Higher Learning board – who all failed to intervene and stop it.
The new texts came to light within a court battle over whether Bryant should have to comply with a subpoena issued by the attorney for the News and their nonprofit. Another defendant, Austin Smith, also joined the subpoena.
The attorneys are bringing the subpoena against Bryant in an ongoing civil suit over welfare misspending, even though Bryant is not a defendant in the litigation, because they say Bryant’s involvement in welfare spending, and particularly the volleyball project, is crucial to their clients’ defense. Bryant argues in his objection to the subpoena that he did nothing wrong, and shouldn’t have to release privileged communication as a result of the defense attorney’s fishing expedition.
“Governor Bryant makes one thing abundantly clear: he is desperate to avoid public scrutiny of his text messages concerning welfare funds used to build the Volleyball Facility at USM,” New’s attorney Gerry Bufkin wrote Friday. “Of course, Bryant insists he did nothing to facilitate the flow of millions from MDHS to the athletic construction project, but he refuses to produce his text messages and other documents that presumably would support his contentions, if true. In lieu of transparency, Bryant opts for obfuscation.”
Favre began discussions with USM about building a new volleyball stadium sometime before late 2016. Favre contacted Bryant for help with the project in April 2017. These conversations were about raising private donations for the project.
When officials in the athletics department began talking to New about the volleyball stadium in July, they were already working with her nonprofit on a separate project, in which it would provide money through a lease for renovations and improvements to the student athlete facility called the M-Club. AD Gilbert sent New a copy of the volleyball building design in mid-July 2017.
The next several days were busy. Favre and New met about the volleyball project. Bryant met with Davis about MDHS projects. Then Bryant discussed the volleyball project with Favre, who sent him construction documents.
Bryant did not produce any of his communication immediately after his initial texts with Favre about the volleyball facility, but two days later, Davis and New met with Favre and USM athletics officials and Davis agreed to fund the project.
“Wow, just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with us! We will get this done!” New texted Favre several days later.
“Bryant’s denials notwithstanding, the evidence and timing of the meetings described herein, suggest that Davis discussed Favre’s Volleyball Facility with Bryant the week of the meeting at USM and received approval from Bryant, express or implied, to fund the project through MDHS. After the meeting at USM, Davis explaining the large funding commitment saying, ‘the Governor likes this project and wants to get it done.’”
Bufkin also noted that the events leading to welfare officials funding the volleyball project mirror another scenario in which Favre contacted the governor for support for a pharmaceutical company called Prevacus and within days, welfare officials were committing funds to the project.
“Importantly, Davis was Executive Director of MDHS for approximately four years.” Bufkin wrote. “In the entirety of his tenure, he committed $4 million or more only twice upon first hearing a proposal. The first time was the Volleyball Facility. The second was Prevacus. The evidence suggests that Bryant was involved in both projects.”
In July, the News attorney Gerry Bufkin filed a subpoena on Bryant for his communication related to the volleyball stadium. Waide joined the subpoena. Bryant’s attorney Billy Quin objected to the subpoena, claiming the communication is privileged and should at the very least be placed under a protective order. In a lengthy court filing, Bryant released several pages of texts he says prove he didn’t know Favre was getting welfare money for the volleyball project.
Now, Bufkin and Waide are pushing back, saying the timeline Bryant provided through his texts is incomplete and that Bryant should have to produce all the relevant communication publicly.
“Bryant never denies that such expenditure was fraudulent,” wrote Jim Waide, attorney for Smith, Davis’ nephew who received hundreds of thousands under contracts with the nonprofits. “Instead, Bryant blames Defendant John Davis, Defendant Nancy New, and Defendant Brett Favre. Bryant provides documents to demonstrate that he was not personally involved in the fraudulent scheme. Bryant’s documents paint an incomplete picture, however, because he neglects to attach correspondence between Bryant and Defendant John Davis. Communications demonstrating Bryant’s participation would likely be between Bryant and his immediate subordinate, Defendant John Davis.”
Waide notes that the bulk of communication Bryant has put forth came after the former governor was aware that the welfare department was under an investigation by the auditor’s office for suspected fraud. Bryant had relayed a small tip regarding Davis in late June 2019.
“Naturally, Bryant would have been careful not to generate incriminating documents after he knew about the investigation. Only after Bryant knew that he was ‘to [sic] old for Federal Prison’ did Bryant generate exculpatory documents,” Waide writes.
Waide argues that Bryant’s communication is not privileged because privileges do not protect fraudulent conduct. Considering Nancy New’s allegation that Bryant directed her to make payments to Favre, “as a matter of law, there is ‘good ground to support’ a belief that Bryant participated in the fraudulent conduct,” Waide writes.
“Bryant’s selective production of text messages, most of which were created after Bryant realized MDHS was under investigation by the State Auditor, should not be summarily accepted as exonerating Bryant without the parties’ having access to all relevant evidence,” Waide writes.
Bryant’s attorney also accuses New’s attorney from attempting to try the case in the media, but Bufkin argues that Bryant invited the media attention himself, namely in a lengthy interview with Mississippi Today.
“In response to questions concerning his involvement in funding the Volleyball Facility and Prevacus, Bryant chose to sit for a three-hour interview with Mississippi Today in an apparent attempt to shift the public narrative, and the media coverage, in his favor. By doing so, Bryant voluntarily thrust himself further into the media spotlight,” Bufkin wrote.
Mississippi Today compiled the following timeline based on documents and communication gathered in the court process or retrieved through records requests. Read the timeline here.
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.