Gov. Phil Bryant Credit: Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

While former Gov. Phil Bryant fights a subpoena within Mississippi’s civil suit over welfare misspending, another defense attorney is now requesting he turn over even more records related to NFL hall of famer Brett Favre’s concussion drug company and other welfare projects.

The new subpoena, filed Friday, seeks communication between Bryant and Favre related to the pharmaceutical startup companies Prevacus and PreSolMD — including correspondence Mississippi Today first uncovered and published in its investigative series “The Backchannel” in April. The texts showed that just before they began receiving welfare money from defendant Nancy New’s nonprofit, Favre and Prevacus founder Jake Vanlandingham offered Bryant stock in the company.

“It’s 3rd and long and we need you to make it happen!!” Favre wrote to the governor in late December 2018.

“I will open a hole,” Bryant responded, piggybacking on the football metaphor.

The texts showed Favre also briefed Bryant when the company began receiving funding from the state and that Bryant agreed to accept the stock after he left office – until State Auditor Shad White’s early 2020 arrests derailed the arrangement. Bryant explained to Mississippi Today that he didn’t read his texts carefully enough to appreciate what the men were saying or asking of him. 

“I can clearly see why you’re following those trails,” Bryant said. “And it doesn’t look good. Should I have caught it? Absolutely. I should’ve caught it. Was I extremely busy as governor? I can’t even describe to you what it is like on a daily basis as governor. This was not on the top of my list. This was not something that I was looking at every day. I’d get a text and it just kind of glance through it. I’d say, ‘Good.’”

Bryant has not been charged civilly or criminally within the welfare case. 

Civil suit defendant Austin Smith, who received nearly $430,000 in welfare contracts, is subpoenaing the Prevacus documents as part of his defense, which argues that the state is denying him equal protection under the law by arbitrarily naming his as a defendant while excluding other individuals he says are just as responsible for the misspending, namely Bryant.

Smith is the nephew of former Mississippi Department of Human Services director John Davis, who was initially charged in 2020 and recently pleaded guilty to several state and federal charges within the welfare scheme. Davis’ crimes relate to welfare money he funneled to professional wrestler brothers Brett DiBiase and Ted DiBiase Jr., sons of famed WWE character Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase.

Smith is also subpoenaing Bryant for any of his communication related to several other welfare-related projects or alleged events first reported by Mississippi Today, including a fitness program by trainer Paul Lacoste, a virtual reality academy by Lobaki Inc., advertising campaigns with conservative talk radio station SuperTalk and “Families First,” treatment for Bryant’s nephew that the governor and his welfare officials facilitated, and the firing of Debbie Hood, wife of former Democratic candidate for governor Jim Hood.

“Governor Bryant’s personal involvement in these misexpenditures would have communicated to Governor Bryant’s immediate subordinate, John Davis, and to Governor Bryant’s long-time, personal friend, Nancy New, that Bryant did not require TANF (welfare) funds to be used exclusively for the benefit of needy families, but that the governor ratified and approved use of TANF funds for non-TANF purposes,” Smith’s attorney Jim Waide wrote in his June 24 answer to the complaint. “Thus, to the extent that Governor Bryant’s immediate subordinate, John Davis, and close personal friend, Nancy New, were expending TANF funds for non-TANF purposes without ‘full and open competition,’ Governor Bryant is jointly responsible.”

Currently, Bryant is fighting an earlier subpoena from Gerry Bufkin, the attorney representing Nancy New, Zach New and their nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center. That subpoena seeks Bryant’s communication related to the use of $5 million in welfare funds to build a volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi. 

As a result of the court battle, both Bufkin and Bryant’s attorney Billy Quin have released never-before-seen text messages over the last month to support their arguments. Bufkin argues based on the messages in his client’s possession, more communication could exist showing Bryant’s involvement in directing welfare funds. Quin rejects the notion Bryant did anything wrong and asserts that the governor had no idea welfare funds were involved in the volleyball project.

Nancy New’s son and assistant director for her nonprofit, Zach New, pleaded guilty to defrauding the government by paying the USM athletic foundation to build a volleyball stadium and disguising the payment as a lease agreement.

But the welfare misspending scandal, and Bryant’s potential role in it, extend far beyond the volleyball stadium. Waide’s latest subpoena seeks the most comprehensive set of records so far — including any communication between Bryant and Auditor White “concerning whether you (Bryant) are liable for misappropriation by MDHS” — in an attempt to uncover Bryant’s actions within the welfare scandal.

White, who previously ran Bryant’s political campaign and was initially appointed to his position by the former governor, began investigating the welfare case after an MDHS employee brought a small tip of suspected fraud to Bryant, who turned that over to White in June of 2019. Most of the misspending occurred within a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, known for providing the welfare check to very poor families. Mississippi Department of Human Services, which administers federal safety net funds for the state, is an agency under the direct control of the governor’s office. 

Though the largest purchases in the initial 2020 indictments against New and her son were the investments in Prevacus and PreSolMD — companies Bryant was consulting at the time of the arrests, purporting not to have any knowledge that they had received welfare funds — White called Bryant the whistleblower of the case.

White has previously said it would have been Davis’ duty to reject improper funding requests from the governor, not the governor’s responsibility to know the rules and laws around agency spending.

Bryant was himself state auditor from 1996, the year Congress created the TANF program, to 2003. Bryant even investigated the TANF program during his tenure. 

Of communication publicly available so far, Bryant’s texts surrounding the Prevacus deal are perhaps the most explosive.

Vanlandingham, Favre, Nancy New and her sons Zach and Jess New are all defendants in the civil suit brought by Mississippi Department of Human Services. While New has pleaded guilty to several state criminal charges related to the scheme, Favre and Vanlandingham have not faced criminal charges.

The civil complaint alleges they knew that the money they were seeking for Prevacus was coming from the state’s welfare department. Prevacus purported to be developing a pharmaceutical nasal spray called Prevasol that is supposed to reduce harmful swelling and inflammation when used after impact to the head. Vanlandingham has since sold his idea for the medication to Odyssey Group International, an acquisition company the scientist said he is now working with to conduct clinical trials for the drug. 

MDHS’s complaint alleges that the agreement between Prevacus and the New nonprofit “falsely pretended” that their purpose was to secure “clinical trial sites” for the drug development to be located in Mississippi.

“The written agreement was a sham, as it concealed the material fact that the actual purpose of the transaction was financially to benefit Defendants Nancy New, Zach New, Jesse New, Jacob Vanlandingham, Brett Favre, Prevacus and PreSolMD.”

MDHS’s complaint, which had to receive approval from the governor’s office before filing, does not mention the former governor in its narrative.

Smith’s subpoena asks Bryant for any of his communication, including texts, instant messages, letters, etc., between Bryant and the following people: Jake Vanlandingham, Brett Favre, John Davis, Teddy DiBiase, Nancy New, Zach New and any employees from MDHS, the governor’s office or the attorney general’s office, containing the terms:

  • Prevacus
  • PresolMD
  • Education Research Program that Addresses Brain Injury Caused By Concussions
  • MCEC
  • FRC

It also asks for the following records:

  • All Documents and Communications that contain information concerning Prevacus including all proposals, offerings, updates, or memoranda of any kind concerning Prevacus and PreSolMD.
  • All Documents and Communications relating in any way to any ownership interest in Prevacus and PreSolMD that You had, have, or that was proposed or suggested to You by any person. 
  • All Documents and Communications between You, or anyone on Your behalf, or anyone acting upon Your instructions, and the Mississippi Development Authority or any other public or private entity concerning funding for Prevacus or PreSolMD or any of their respective projects, infrastructure, products, or proposals.
  • All Documents and Communications relating in any way to any personal or ownership interest You have or had in any real property or real property development in Mississippi, including, without limitation, any real property or real property development associated with the name Traditions or any similar name, on which, or in relation to which, a Prevacus or PreSolMD presence, of any kind, was proposed, suggested or considered.
  • All Documents and Communications between you, Ted DiBiase, Sr., Ted DiBiase, Jr., and Brett DiBiase in which there were discussions concerning how monies might be paid to any of the DiBiases, or any company controlled by the DiBiases. Companies controlled by the DiBiases include, but are not limited to, Price Ventures, LLC, Familiae Orientem, LLC, Heart of David Ministries, Inc.
  • All Documents and Communications between you and John Davis concerning providing funding for Ted DiBiase, Jr., and Brett DiBiase or Heart of David Ministries, Inc., Familiae Orientem, LLC, Price Ventures, LLC, or any company owned or controlled by any of the DiBiases.
  • All Documents and Communications in which payments of Federal or State funds or funds of MCEC could be, or were, paid to Paul Lacoste or Victory Sports Foundation, Inc.  
  • All Documents and Communications concerning Tate Reeves’ efforts to obtain funding for Paul Lacoste or for Victory Sports Foundation, LLC.
  • All Documents and Communications in which a meeting with Paul Lacoste to discuss a contract with him or his company, Victory Sports Foundation, Inc. was planned.
  • All Documents and Contracts which mention funding for Labocki, Inc., or mention contracting with Lobaki, Inc. and/or Lobaki Foundation, or mention obtaining a contract for Lobaki, Inc. and/or Lobaki Foundation, to be funded by Federal or State monies, or to be funded by MCEC.
  • All Documents and Communications in which you discussed advertising or authorization of payment for advertising by Telesouth Communications d/b/a Super Talk while you were Governor. 
  • All Documents and Communications in which you discussed treatment for Noah Malone while you were Governor. 
  • All Documents and Communications which you had with John Davis or Nancy New concerning treatment for Noah Malone while you were Governor.
  • All Documents and Communications in which treatment for Logan Dillon, or payment of treatment for Logan Dillon was discussed while you were Governor.
  • All Documents and Communications in which the employment and/or termination of Debbie Hood as an employee of FRC was discussed.
  • All Documents and Communications concerning advertising services to be provided for MCEC or FRC, MDHS, or “Families First” while you were Governor.
  • All Documents and Communications concerning payment of advertising services for MCEC, FRC, MDHS, or “Families First.”
  • All Documents and Communications concerning payment of advertising services to Cirlot Advertising from funds belonging to MCEC, FRC, MDHS, or “Families First.” 
  • All Documents and Communications which you had with Steve Davenport concerning advertising services to be done by Telesouth Communications or Super Talk while you were Governor.
  • All Documents and Communications between you and State Auditor Shad White concerning whether you are liable for misappropriation by MDHS.

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.