As he became further enmeshed in a scheme that diverted federal welfare money to build a volleyball stadium that cost more than $5 million at the University of Southern Mississippi, former football star Brett Favre texted a question to the head of a nonprofit doling out funds meant to go to welfare recipients in the nation’s poorest state.
“If you were to pay me,” he wrote in 2017 of a $1.1 million proposal for promotional efforts that would actually be funneled toward building the stadium, “is there any way the media could find out where it came from and how much?” Several years of text messages about the project came to light when they were filed in court last week and were first published by Mississippi Today, a small nonprofit news site that has consistently led reporting on the story.
Far more than that payment has been exposed in a billowing scandal that has stretched considerably beyond Favre. A motley assortment of political appointees, former football stars, onetime professional wrestlers, business figures and various friends of the state’s former Republican governor all stand accused of pocketing or misusing money earmarked for needy families.
On Thursday, John Davis, who served as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services under former Gov. Phil Bryant, pleaded guilty to both federal and state charges of embezzling federal welfare funds. Millions of dollars were transferred to friends and relatives, court documents say.
According to a lawsuit filed by the state in May, around $5 million was diverted to Ted DiBiase, a flamboyant retired wrestler once known as “The Million Dollar Man,” and two of his sons, as well as various entities connected to them, including a ministry. Much of the money went to fictitious services, bogus jobs, first-class travel arrangements and even one son’s stay at a luxury rehab center in Malibu, California, that cost $160,000, the suit claims.
Similarly, the state claims that Marcus Dupree, a former high school football phenom and professional running back, who was paid to act as a celebrity endorser and motivational speaker, did not perform any contractual services toward the $371,000 he received to purchase and live in a sprawling residence with a swimming pool and adjacent horse pastures in a gated community.
Favre, who earned more than $140 million in his Hall of Fame career, was paid $1.1 million for speeches he never gave, the suit said. He also orchestrated more than $2 million in government funds being channeled to a biotechnology startup in which he had invested, according to the suit.
None of the three have been charged with crimes and all have denied wrongdoing. But even the most cynical observers in Mississippi have been dumbfounded by the brazenness of the activity in the allegations and how deeply it reflected the inequities baked into the history of a state with the nation’s highest poverty rate.
“The profiteering off the poor is ongoing,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. He added, “It is like Robin Hood in reverse — you take from the poor and give to the rich.”
The accusations about fraudulent grants were all laid out in the lawsuit filed in May against 38 individuals and organizations, which sought the repayment of more than $24 million. Rather than helping the poor, the federal welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, appeared to become a slush fund for pet projects and personal gain.
The state alleges that the money was siphoned off for services that were often never provided and, in any case, would have failed to meet both federal and state regulations governing their dispersal. The case follows a state audit released in May 2020 suggesting that as much as $94 million of TANF funds might have gone astray.
Six people were arrested in February 2020 on charges of misusing public funds in what the state auditor, Shad White, has described as one of the largest public corruption cases in Mississippi’s history. Most of them have pleaded guilty; Jody Owens II, the Hinds County district attorney, said a joint inquiry by federal and state investigators could produce charges against more people.
Lawyers for the senior DiBiase and Dupree did not respond to requests for comment. Michael Dawkins, the lawyer representing DiBiase and his Heart of David Ministries said in court papers that his clients had acted legally.
After the charges first emerged, a lawyer for Dupree, J. Matthew Eichelberger, released a letter saying his client had earned the money.
Bud Holmes, Favre’s lawyer, did not return a request for comment. Both he and Favre have said repeatedly that the football legend was not aware that the funds came from a federal welfare program.
When it comes to basic assistance, Mississippi ranks 47th among U.S. states in the amount of money it spends, said Aditi Shrivastava, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. Figures compiled by the center indicate that the median maximum benefit nationally, which few people are paid, was $498 monthly in July 2021, compared with $260 in Mississippi.
At the University of Southern Mississippi, faculty members say the school prides itself in admitting first-generation students from the kind of families the money was meant to help. “No one is very happy about it,” Denis Wiesenburg, faculty senate president and professor of marine science, said of the recent unwanted attention. “We recognize that it has tarnished the reputation of the university.”
The scandal has seeped out over years now, largely because of the dogged reporting by Mississippi Today. But that does not dull the anger of those most affected.
Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, a nonprofit organization, said people were appalled that tens of millions of dollars that should have gone toward initiatives such as improved public transportation or child care for the working poor were apparently handed out to rich political cronies instead. “They see this money that is intended to help people like them that is so misused and redirected to people who do not need help,” she said. “It is infuriating.”