Gov. Tate Reeves, center, poses for a photo with NFL quarterback Brett Favre and former Gov. Phil Bryant at a July 2019 fundraiser hosted by Poncho James, a member of the USM Athletic Foundation board of directors. Credit: Twitter: Tate Reeves

NFL legend Brett Favre maintains he did nothing wrong.

The recent focus on two of his projects that received welfare money during the biggest public corruption scandal in Mississippi history is just a pretext, his attorneys say, for blaming and smearing him in the media.

They say he never initially pledged his own money to build the widely publicized volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi, so he couldn’t have personally benefitted from the taxpayer money used on the project.

And plus, there were many more state employees, attorneys and politicians who facilitated or approved of the legal loophole — which state prosecutors called a scheme to defraud the government — to funnel $5 million in federal grant funds from Mississippi Department of Human Services through a lease agreement between a private nonprofit and the university.

Favre, in the new filing, said former Gov. Phil Bryant knew that grant funding from the welfare department was behind the volleyball project.

“The agreement was reviewed and approved by the Attorney General, who recommended that the IHL Board of Trustees approve it, which they did,” Favre’s latest court motion reads. “The IHL Board of Trustees expressly noted that MCEC’s funding was via a block grant from MDHS. The Governor was aware of the source of the funding and supported it. Following final approval, Southern Miss publicly announced the plans for the State-owned Wellness Center and lauded MCEC’s support for the project. Not one public Mississippi official or lawyer expressed any objection to or concern about the funding and plan.”

Favre makes these new arguments in a recent motion to dismiss civil charges against him. Mississippi Department of Human Services alleges in its amended complaint filed in December that Favre is liable for more than $7 million that he helped funnel away from the poor or anti-poverty programs.

An email Favre’s attorneys entered into court appears to contain notes from assistant USM Athletic Director Daniel Feig about the MDHS funding proposal for the volleyball stadium. In the email, Feig acknowledged that the MDHS grant funds cannot be used on construction projects. But MDHS’s attorneys — Garrig Shields and Jacob Black, also defendants in the suit — advised that MDHS could give the money to a nonprofit called Mississippi Community Education Center, run by criminal defendant Nancy New, and she could give the money to USM Athletic Foundation through a lease. The notes suggest the theory that when MDHS money leaves the agency into the hands of the nonprofit, it becomes “private” money, and therefore federal regulations do not apply.

Feig did not immediately respond to a Facebook message Friday evening

Feig notes that other universities have entered similar lease agreements (“sub grants to do youth camps”) and that they could use those contracts as a model. He also wrote that even though they would be using MDHS funds, “Rather not have MDHS named.”

“If, as MDHS falsely alleges, Favre was part of a conspiracy, it was the most public and open conspiracy in Mississippi history, it was directed and carried out by MDHS itself to transfer funds from one public state entity to another, Southern Miss, and it was vetted and approved by numerous lawyers and State officials,” Favre’s motion reads. “To hold Favre responsible under these circumstances would have no legal or factual justification.”

Nancy New’s son Zach New, a nonprofit employee, pleaded guilty to defrauding the government for his role in the volleyball sham lease agreement. He is the only one facing criminal consequences over the scheme; Nancy New’s lengthy plea agreement does not include the USM Athletic Foundation payment.

In addition to the $5 million volleyball project, MDHS claims Favre was party to a sham agreement to funnel $2.1 million in welfare money to a pharmaceutical startup company that the athlete was investing in — an allegation Favre denies.

“The Amended Complaint, again, does not, as it cannot, allege that Favre was aware that the money given to Prevacus consisted of TANF funds, even assuming that it did,” Favre’s motion reads. “And, even if Favre knew that Prevacus received public funding, he would have had no reason to suspect that there was anything improper about it—state governments routinely give financial benefits to private businesses to entice them to do business within their states—precisely what is alleged as to Prevacus.”

Favre is just one of several dozen defendants from whom MDHS is attempting to recoup tens of millions in misspent funds. Friday was a major filing deadline in the lawsuit, so several defendants filed responses at the same time, including Favre.

The court also saw filings Friday from defendants University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation; former state lawmaker Will Longwitz and his lobbying firm Inside Capitol; Nick Coughlin and his company NCC Ventures; former Family Resource Center employee Amy Harris; Williams, Weiss Hester & Company, the firm responsible for auditing Nancy New’s nonprofit; and former professional wrestler Brett DiBiase, who was the first to plead guilty in the separate criminal case in 2020. Several more were expected to file by the end of the evening.

In his motion, Favre called into question the involvement of former Gov. Bryant and current Gov. Tate Reeves in the funding structure that allowed for federal grants intended to alleviate poverty to flow unchecked through the nonprofit of their politically connected friend.

“Nancy New was well connected with numerous Mississippi officials, including Davis and then-Governor Bryant, and close friends with Governor Bryant’s wife Deborah Bryant,” the motion reads. “State officials like Davis, former Governor Bryant, and current Governor Tate 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 started by Governor Bryant in conjunction with other State officials.”

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.

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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.