Gov. Tate Reeves’ brother coordinated with state Auditor Shad White on damage control for former NFL star Brett Favre after an audit first revealed in 2020 that the athlete had received more than $1 million in welfare funds, according to text messages the governor’s political campaign released Thursday.
Todd Reeves, Favre’s friend, had also arranged conversations in early 2020 with Gov. Reeves so that Favre could ask for the governor’s help in funding the University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium, one of the centerpieces of the ongoing welfare scandal.
The texts released Thursday show how, on Favre’s behalf, Todd Reeves facilitated the athlete’s repayment of some of the funds and asked for White to make a public statement that “the investigation (shows to this point) Brett has done nothing wrong.”
Meanwhile, attorneys for the state auditor’s office and the attorney general’s office have fought for eight months to withhold these texts from Mississippi Today, who originally requested them. The state argued as recently as Wednesday the texts are part of their investigative file in the welfare case, and publicly releasing them could harm the ongoing welfare scandal investigation.
But on Thursday, as Mississippi Today prepared its story about the withheld records, the Reeves campaign released what they say are the text messages in question.
After Mississippi Today reached out to Todd Reeves and Gov. Reeves’ campaign for comment about the texts and the state’s argument that they are evidence in an ongoing investigation, the Reeves campaign did not respond to the inquiry but instead sent out a media release chastising the news organization for covering the story. Todd Reeves also gave his own quote for the campaign’s release.
“I’ve been friendly with Brett for years, and always heard great things about Shad,” Todd Reeves said in a press release Thursday, distributed by his brother’s gubernatorial campaign. “I didn’t learn anything about this TANF mess or Brett’s dealings with the state until it was front page news. When Brett was considering repaying the funds, he asked me if I could help him get in touch with the auditor to coordinate that–so that’s what I did. I helped money get back in the right hands, not the wrong hands, and I think that’s what most people would have done. Brett believed he had done nothing wrong, and I helped convince him to return the money anyway. Those are the texts in question. I know Mississippi Today is willing to lie about us, so I just wanted to get the truth out.”
Mississippi Today cannot verify if the Reeves campaign released all of the texts sought by the litigation because the news outlet has not been allowed to view the requested records. The Reeves campaign did not respond to follow-up questions about the completeness of the records they released on Thursday, and the attorney general’s office declined to comment.
The news organization first filed a public records request for texts between White and Todd Reeves in December 2022. Additionally, the request also included any of White’s messages or emails that made reference to Todd Reeves. Mississippi Today was denied the records and filed suit against the auditor’s office in January 2023.
Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Crystal Wise Martin reviewed the texts in private, on Mississippi Today’s request, to determine if the documents were, in fact, exempt from public release.
“They obviously relate to the DHS investigation,” Judge Martin said during a hearing Wednesday, after she had seen the records. “There’s no question about that.”
Special Assistant Attorney General Rex Shannon, representing the auditor’s office for the state, argued against releasing the texts on Wednesday, saying:
- “Their disclosure may harm that investigation by chilling similar communications in the future.”
- “The records in question reveal and confirm the identity of a potential witness.”
- “The records in question would potentially disclose investigatory techniques and or the results of those techniques.”
- “The records in question, if publicly produced, would potentially impede or jeopardize any prosecution of certain individuals that may result from the DHS investigation.”
White has said several times previously that he has turned over all welfare investigation-related material in his possession to the FBI. While the Mississippi Department of Human Services has sued Favre in its ongoing civil case, overseen by Gov. Reeves, Favre has not faced any criminal charges.
In the early days of Gov. Reeves’ current term, Favre used Todd Reeves as a way to communicate with the governor. Favre, who endorsed Gov. Reeves in his election months earlier, was hoping the governor would help him find public funding to pay for the completed construction of a volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi. Favre had made a guarantee to the university. If he didn’t find the funding somewhere, Favre would have to pay out of his own pocket. According to texts previously released, Todd Reeves would facilitate lines of communication for the athlete.
“Brett, you aren’t bothering me at all and please always feel free to reach out to me anytime,” Todd Reeves texted Favre, according to a previously released text Favre forwarded to Gov. Phil Bryant on Jan. 26, 2020. “I will help any way I can. I will be glad to set something up with Tate. Tell me kind of what the plan in place for funding is/was. Did Gov Bryant mention maybe trying to get it as part of a bond bill for the University?”
At this time, the USM project had already received at least $5 million in funding from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which is supposed to provide monthly cash assistance to very poor families, through a nonprofit run by Nancy New.
Within days and weeks of Favre’s communication with the Reeves brothers in early 2020, the auditor would arrest the two top welfare officials who had been working with Favre and the volleyball project would be outed as part of a sprawling scheme to misuse tens of millions of welfare funds.
White had taken a strong stance against the widespread corruption at MDHS leading up to the May 2020 release of his annual audit, which questioned almost $100 million worth of spending.
But in a press conference describing some of the more egregious findings, White did not draw attention to Favre, whose welfare payment, listed under Favre Enterprises, was tucked in a bullet list on page 18 of the 104-page report. Still, the revelation made national news.
Two days later, Favre repaid $500,000 of the $1.1 million and promised the auditor he would return the additional $600,000 in installments in the coming months. First, the texts show, White sent Todd Reeves the address of where to send the money, then they arranged for an agent to pick up a check at the office of Favre’s agent.
“If possible, Brett would like you to say something along the lines of “the investigation (shows to this point) Brett has done nothing wrong and the monies he is paying back for commercials and Psa’s is from his own good will,” Todd Reeves texted White on May 6, 2020.
White praised Favre in the statement he released the same day: “I want to applaud Mr. Favre for his good faith effort to make this right and make the taxpayers and TANF families whole. To date, we have seen no records indicating Mr. Favre knew that TANF was the program that served as the source of the money he was paid.”
A few weeks later, Todd Reeves texted White, “Just wanted to tell you I appreciate you talking and helping the last couple of weeks.”
The last text Todd Reeves produced Thursday was a message he sent the auditor in September of 2020.
“I think Brett is working to get some more money sent in,” Todd Reeves said. “He’s had some reporters start hounding them again. I’m sure they have contacted your office. He’s just asking not to be thrown under the bus as he is working within the timeline.”
But Favre did not return the remainder of the funds until White issued him an official demand more than a year later in October 2021. By that time, the auditor said Favre also owed $228,000 in interest.
Mississippi Today’s December 2022 records request to the auditor’s office asked for text messages and emails to examine how Todd Reeves, potentially on Favre’s behalf, may have communicated with White during this time period.
“We’re here arguing about the records that belong to the people of the state of Mississippi,” Henry Laird, Mississippi Today’s attorney, told the judge on Wednesday. “These are not the auditor’s records. These are Mississippi’s records. And unless there is an exemption that allows the auditor to say they shouldn’t be produced, they should be produced.”
Judge Martin did not rule whether to release the texts Wednesday. On Thursday, as she continued to decide how to rule and before Mississippi Today published its story about the hearing, the Reeves campaign chose to publicly release texts between Todd Reeves and White.
“While Mr. Reeves has the right to release his text messages, the State Auditor’s Office has not and will not release information regarding a potential or ongoing investigation to protect the integrity of an investigation,” Fletcher Freeman, a spokesperson for the auditor’s office, said in a statement Thursday. “The men and women of the State Auditor’s Office have worked tirelessly to hold those who steal taxpayer’s dollars accountable, and we will continue to work with prosecutors and our federal partners to do so.”
Acknowledging that the texts might not, on their face, appear to be part of an investigative file, Shannon, the state attorney, provided the judge in Wednesday’s hearing with auditor’s office press releases that relate to the content in the texts. Those included a release in May of 2020 about Favre repaying some of the $1.1 million in TANF funds he received; a release in October of 2021 about the auditor demanding the repayment of TANF funds from several people, including Favre for the remaining funds White said he owed; and a release about several guilty pleas in the case.
Mississippi Today’s records request asked for messages sent between Feb. 1, 2020, and June 1, 2020. In this timeframe, White made initial arrests in the welfare fraud case (Feb. 5), Mississippi Today published a story first uncovering that welfare funds had been used to build the volleyball stadium (Feb. 27), and White released his annual audit (May 4), which first revealed the direct welfare payment to Favre. The records request also asked for messages sent between Sept. 1, 2021 and Dec. 31, 2021. In this timeframe, the welfare agency released its commissioned forensic audit, which provided more details about the misspending and prompted White to issue the official demand for repayment from Favre.
In response to a separate request to Gov. Reeves for his texts with Favre prior to becoming governor in 2020, the governor’s office said it was not “in possession or control of any public records responsive to your request.” Before 2020, Reeves served as lieutenant governor in the Mississippi Senate. Generally speaking, lawmakers have used the legislative exemption in the Public Records Act to withhold records from reporters.
Asked about the volleyball stadium at Neshoba County Fair in the summer of 2022, Reeves suggested he didn’t support the idea of using any taxpayer funds to build sports facilities.
“Look I don’t know all the details as to how that came about,” he said. “What I do know is that it doesn’t seem like an expense that I would personally support for TANF dollars. I don’t even like the state building stadiums with general tax dollars.”
However, Favre and Bryant seemed confident Tate Reeves would help.
On election day in November 2019, Favre texted then-Gov. Bryant, “I know it’s Election Day and you are probably busy but while we know who our Governor is presently not to mention arguably the most popular and influential I want to stay on your radar. If our guy wins I’ll feel better about things but if the other guy wins I feel like Nancy and I can forget our vision for Southern Miss.”
“That’s one reason I have been pushing Tate so hard,” Bryant responded. “He has to win. Then we set up a meeting on Wellness Center at USM.”
Gov. Reeves did win, and in late January of 2020, Todd Reeves set up a phone call for Favre and the governor to discuss funding. About a week later, as White was preparing to make arrests, Favre expressed his desire to take Gov. Reeves to see the volleyball stadium, texting, “and it would only be us. I want you to see what your (sic) trying to help me for.”
It’s unclear if Gov. Reeves actually pushed to include funding for the facility in a legislative or other kind of appropriation, but his brother certainly gave Favre the impression that he would.
“I think the angle Tate is looking at is a bond bill according to Todd his brother,” Favre texted Bryant on Feb. 7, 2020, as the fallout from the arrests was still materializing.