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In Mississippi, political corruption, celebrity and power combined to fleece the state’s most vulnerable residents. Tens of millions of dollars meant to assist families in need were instead used for personal expenses and pet projects. Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre has been connected to the scheme. Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe broke the story and joined Amna Nawaz to discuss.
The United States' social safety nets sometimes fails the people who need it most. And, in Mississippi, recent reporting has revealed how political corruption, celebrity and power combined to fleece the state's most vulnerable residents.
Amna Nawaz has our report.
Judy, tens of millions of dollars meant to assist families in need were instead used for personal expenses and pet projects unrelated to Mississippi's welfare program.
As part of an ongoing lawsuit, last week, a former director of the states welfare agency pled guilty to counts of conspiracy and fraud and faces up to 15 years in prison. The scandal has rocked the poorest state in the nation and has now raised questions about the roles of prominent Mississippians, including football Hall of Famer Brett Favre and former Governor Phil Bryant.
Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe broke the story, and joins me now from Jackson, Mississippi.
Anna, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for joining us.
You broke this story, as we mentioned, an enormous alleged fraud scheme there. The part that caught the nation's attention was this $5 million effort to funnel those welfare funds to a volleyball program where Brett Favre's daughter plays.
Just lay that out for us. What did you learn from your reporting?
Anna Wolfe, Mississippi Today:
So, back in 2020, after six people were arrested from the state auditor's office in this scheme allegedly to steal $4 million from the state's welfare program, we learned pretty quickly that $5 million had gone to build a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, which is the alma mater of Brett Favre, and that Brett Favre's daughter played volleyball at the university.
The state auditor said this was the biggest public fraud case in state history. What does that entail? How big are we talking?
He questioned a total of $94 million in federal spending from the Mississippi Department of Human Services, which is our social safety net agency in Mississippi.
The money went in a number of kind of wild ways to the political cronies and friends and family and quite a few sports celebrities as well. And so the money wasn't going to programs that were actually helping people out of poverty.
Instead, they were spent on things like speeches from sports celebrities and the volleyball stadium for fancy centers with virtual reality equipment, these kinds of things, instead of being used on direct tangible assistance for Mississippi's very poor families, which, again, this is the poorest state in the country with one of the highest poverty rates.
And that money was not being used to help those folks.
Tell me more about that. What kind of difference would that money have made specifically in Mississippi. Who would it have helped?
So, we went down to Hattiesburg to kind of take a look at the volleyball stadium when we found out about it back in 2020.
And we interviewed people around the community, people maybe living in poverty, single parents. And we asked them what they would have liked to have seen this money spent on. And one man that we spoke to actually had his kids taken away because he was homeless about five years before this. And he told us that he — in going to the social service organizations that could have benefited from these funds, he asked them for help for rental assistance to put a roof over his head to get his kid back.
And they — he was turned away. He was told that there wasn't any support available for him. So these are the kinds of stories that — it's one thing that taxpayer money went to this sports celebrity who has many millions himself, but it's another thing to think about the missed opportunities for people who so desperately needed this assistance and that it wasn't there for them.
Anna, the text messages here were central to your reporting.
And there's one text exchange I want to highlight that was revealed from your work. It's between Brett Favre and a woman named Nancy New, who ran the nonprofit that distributed a lot of these funds.
And, in it, Favre writes — quote — "If you were to pay me, is there any way the media I can find out where it came from and how much?"
Nancy New responds — quote — "No, we never have had that information publicized. I understand you being uneasy about that, though."
Now, we should say that Brett Favre's attorney, Anna, says he never knew the money was from a welfare fund. But what have you found from your reporting?
He says that he doesn't know that this money came from a federal fund called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, most commonly known for providing the welfare check to very poor families.
But he did know that it was grant money. And, in some cases, the text messages show even that he said that — he figured that she was supporting him with federal grant money. At one point, he told his business associate — he was working with another company to try to get welfare money for a pharmaceutical start-up company that ended up receiving $2 million in allegedly stolen welfare funds.
And he told his business associate at the time that he knew that Nancy New, this nonprofit founder, would be helpful, because she gave him $5 million via grant funds for the volleyball stadium. So, you kind of see in the text messages their mentality around this spending. This was something for Brett Favre personally, in the way that he's describing it in these text messages.
And it also shows some — their attempts to sort of operate in secrecy, right? None of the money that was being spent from these nonprofits was really being recorded and then reflected back to the state agency. So, when I was trying to get expenditure reports and asking the agency to show me how they were spending the money and what they were doing for people in poverty, there wasn't any data to show for it, because that nonprofit had kind of turned into a black hole, as she described in that text message where she says, we don't publicize that information.
Anna, I want to be clear about one thing.
I know, in your reporting, you use the word the misuse of funds a lot. We have seen that again and again. Were laws broken in any of this, when you talk about money going to a volleyball program, for example?
That's a really good point, because there is a difference between misuse in spending or even spending outside of federal regulations and a crime, right?
There have been six people who have been charged with crimes. There is a large civil suit that the state is bringing against a number of other people, including Brett Favre, that doesn't allege a crime took place, but it does allege that they received money improperly and asks them to return the funds.
And so you kind of have to look at each purchase to say, OK, whether this is just bad government or whether this is misspending or whether it is a crime. And that is something that we will learn more about, I think, as the federal investigation, criminal investigation into this matter continues.
Brett Favre has not been charged with a crime. Phil Bryant has not been charged with a crime. But the people who have, have agreed to work with federal prosecutors in their ongoing probe. And I think we're going to see if that's going to result in those folks being held accountable for their role in the scandal.
It's an incredible story we will continue to follow, first broken by Mississippi Today reporter Anna Wolfe.
Anna, thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me.
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Amna Nawaz serves as PBS NewsHour's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Courtney Norris is the deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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