Though officials have not accused him of a crime, Brett Favre said he would refund the welfare money and made an initial payment of $500,000. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre nagged former Gov. Phil Bryant for help funding a new volleyball facility at his alma mater and a pharmaceutical start-up he had invested in.

Bryant’s subordinates then funneled a total of $7.1 million in federal welfare funds to the two projects, plus another $1.1 million to Favre himself, within what officials have called the worst public fraud scheme in state history.

Favre now says he’s receiving all the blame while officials are letting Bryant off the hook.

In a new motion to dismiss civil charges against him, Favre argues the state welfare department, Mississippi Department of Human Services, has neglected the roles of former Gov. Bryant and the auditor Bryant appointed, Shad White, in the misspending of millions of welfare funds.

“MDHS also has ignored the numerous public officials responsible for overseeing MDHS, such as former Governor Dewey Phillip Bryant and current State Auditor Shad White, who, despite his statutory obligation to conduct annual audits of MDHS, did not ‘question’ MDHS’s transfers of tens of millions of dollars to MCEC (Mississippi Community Education Center) until 2020, nearly five years after those transfers began,” reads Favre’s motion, filed by his Austin, TX-based attorney Eric Herschmann.

The welfare department’s civil suit, filed last May, alleges Favre agreed with MDHS Director John Davis and nonprofit founder Nancy New to transfer $2.1 million in funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to a pharmaceutical company called Prevacus, in which Favre was a major stakeholder. The suit also alleges Favre took $1.1 million in TANF funds for work he didn’t conduct.

Favre denies both allegations, alleging MDHS has fixated on the two items Favre publicly supported — Prevacus and the volleyball project — as a way of “blaming Favre, publicizing his involvement, and bringing its baseless claims against him in this lawsuit.”

The civil suit, which targets 38 individuals or companies, only seeks to recoup $24 million of at least $77 million that forensic auditors found was misspent. Favre argued MDHS is “selectively suing only a fraction of those who allegedly received the funds, while inexplicably ignoring the numerous other recipients.”

Favre has received significant national coverage in recent months for his proximity to a deal in which officials converted $5 million in welfare funds to build a state-of-the-art facility for University of Southern Mississippi’s volleyball program, where his daughter played. The fraud scheme, which involved dressing up the stadium to appear as a wellness center for impoverished Mississippians, led to a criminal conviction against New’s son Zach New.

Favre has not faced any charges in connection with that deal. Gov. Tate Reeves directed the welfare agency not to include the volleyball project — the largest known purchase within the scandal — in its civil suit.

But in his motion, Favre called out the former governor and others for perpetuating the scheme.

“Davis and New did not (and could not have) authorized structuring the $5 million in funding as a sublease on their own,” the filing reads. “They needed and obtained the approval and assistance of other State officials and agencies—including Governor Bryant, the Attorney General, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, Southern Miss itself, and the Southern Miss Athletic Foundation.”

The motion also confirms that then-Southern Miss Athletic Director Jon Gilbert introduced Favre to New, who sat on the Southern Miss Athletic Foundation board.

“New was well connected with numerous Mississippi officials, including Davis and then-Governor Bryant, and close friends with Governor Bryant’s wife Deborah Bryant,” it said.

The money in question flowed through New’s nonprofit, Mississippi Community Education Center, or MCEC, and therefore out of sight from public view. Favre zoned in on New’s connections to state officials, even corralling current Gov. Reeves into his rebuttal.

“State officials like Davis, former Governor Bryant, and current Governor Reeves were aware that New, through MCEC, used State money to provide services and funding to various State initiatives, through, among other things, the Family First Initiative of Mississippi, an anti-poverty program which was started by Governor Bryant in conjunction with other state officials,” his filing reads. “Deborah Bryant and New hosted fundraisers together at the governor’s mansion. Governor Reeves even filmed a campaign ad in 2019 at New’s school.”

For years, the misspending went unnoticed by the state auditor’s office as MDHS dismantled internal controls, failing to keep so much as a list of organizations it funded.

Bryant appointed White, his former campaign manager, to state auditor in July of 2018. White’s investigation into welfare misspending began after an MDHS employee brought a small tip about Davis’ potential fraud to Bryant in June 2019.

White made six arrests in the case, including Davis and New, in February 2020. The payments to Prevacus were central to the indictment. A day earlier, Bryant had scheduled a meeting with Prevacus’ founder Jake Vanlandingham, a Florida neuroscientist who offered the governor stock in the company in exchange for his help, according to texts Mississippi Today obtained two years later. The texts showed Favre had even excitedly texted Bryant to tell the governor when they finally started receiving funding from the state in early 2019.

Days after the arrest, Bryant cut ties with the scientist and White publicly named Bryant as the “whistleblower” in the case.

“State Auditor White—who was previously Governor Bryant’s campaign manager and policy director and was appointed State Auditor by Governor Bryant—made this (whistleblower) designation knowing that Governor Bryant was both aware of and supported MCEC’s payments to Prevacus at issue in this lawsuit, as well as its $5 million payment to Southern Miss in connection with the construction of a wellness center,” Favre’s filing reads.

In Favre’s motion, his first significant jab in the case, the athlete argues that the welfare department has targeted him for his celebrity in an attempt to divert attention away from its own wrongdoing.

Mississippi Today first connected Favre to the welfare scandal in February 2020 in its reporting on the welfare-funded volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi and Favre’s attempts to lure Prevacus to Mississippi with Bryant’s help. White made the first official finding against Favre in his annual audit released in May of 2020. The report noted that his company, Favre Enterprises, received $1.1 million under a promotional contract, including supposed appearances at which “the individual contracted did not speak nor was he present for those events.”

Favre has repeatedly denied that he failed to fulfill the terms of his agreement with the nonprofit. Mississippi Today obtained a 2018 invoice that shows conservative talk radio network SuperTalk ran Favre’s ad promoting Families First more than two dozen times during a three-month period.

“As to the $1.1 million MCEC paid Favre,” Favre’s motion reads, “it did so in exchange for Favre agreeing to perform services for MCEC, including recording a radio advertisement promoting Families First of Mississippi, a program launched by Governor Bryant, in conjunction with MDHS and MCEC, to provide services to needy Mississippians.”

Favre returned the $1.1 million — a fact he laments is missing from MDHS’s complaint — but the auditor’s office maintains that he still owes interest on the funds.

“It’s ludicrous to say that Mr. Favre has been singled out in any way,” the auditor’s office said in a statement Monday evening. “And as far as our office is concerned, Mr. Favre remains liable for $228,000 in interest for nonperformance of the contract in question.”

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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.