Hall of Fame football player Brett Favre is in the news for having allegedly used welfare money to build a volleyball stadium for his daughter in Mississippi. What?
Who is Brett … Fav-ruh?
Favre, an alumnus of the University of Southern Mississippi, played quarterback for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers for many years. He also played for the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Jets and made a cameo appearance as himself in the film There’s Something About Mary, during which Ben Stiller’s character pronounces his name wrong. Very funny scene.
I recall that something controversial involving Favre happened on the Jets.
A.J. Daulerio of the site Deadspin reported in 2010 that a sports TV/media personality named Jenn Sterger had told him that someone who she believed to be Favre left her lewd voicemails and sent her photos of his penis during a period when she was working for the Jets. (Favre is married.) Deadspin then published the voicemails and pictures, which it said it had obtained from a third party. (The private equity firm that later purchased Deadspin has since deleted thousands of images from its archives, including those in the Favre post.) Sterger went on to cooperate with an NFL investigation into the matter and vouched for the authenticity of the images through an attorney; the league concluded that it could not determine whether Favre had sent them but fined him $50,000 for not cooperating with its inquiry.
Naughty stuff, allegedly! And thence?
In early 2020, following an investigation by Mississippi state auditor Shad White, the district attorney in Jackson—the state’s capital—charged six people with crimes involving a nonprofit called the Mississippi Community Education Center. The organization was run by a politically well-connected woman named Nancy New; it had been put in charge of distributing tens of millions of dollars in federal funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), which is one of the poverty-reduction efforts colloquially referred to as welfare. What White’s investigation alleged was that New and her nonprofit had actually used the money to benefit other well-connected figures in the state, like Favre. This happened during governor Phil Bryant’s administration, which is important to know for later.
Why was this money ever in the hands of a middle-man organization in the first place? I thought welfare meant that if you have an income below a certain level, you get a certain amount of money each month directly from the government.
That’s what it still means in some places. But the 1996 welfare bill that Bill Clinton campaigned for and signed into law replaced a more direct, structured system with “block grants,” or federal disbursements that states have broad flexibility to use to reduce poverty as they see fit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities summarizes the allowable uses of the grants like so:
(1) assisting families in need so children can be cared for in their own homes or the homes of relatives; (2) reducing the dependency of parents in need by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; (3) preventing pregnancies among unmarried persons; and (4) encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.
Under these broad directives, an advertising campaign about the downsides of teen pregnancy can be a “welfare” program, for example.
While this might seem odd—and like an invitation to waste money!— there was bipartisan support at the time for replacing direct payments, which are believed by some to create dependency and a “culture of poverty,” with programs that purportedly incentivize personal responsibility and a “culture of work.” (For more on this subject, check out The Queen, a kind of detective story/biography about the first so-called “welfare queen,” by Slate national editor Josh Levin.) According to Mississippi Today, only 3,000 state residents—total—receive cash benefits funded by TANF.
So it was not legally fishy, per se, that Mississippi sent TANF money to a nonprofit.
Right. What’s at issue is that the Mississippi Community Education Center went and spent that money on, for example, a new volleyball stadium at Southern Miss (where Favre’s daughter played the sport). It also gave $2 million-plus to a Florida medical startup, in which Favre had a stake, that said it was developing a nasal spray that could limit the damage caused by concussions. And Favre was given $1.1 million personally for what the organization’s documentation says was a commitment to deliver speeches on its behalf that was never fulfilled. (The nonprofit also made many other questionable expenses, of which the most egregious was perhaps the $160,000 that state authorities say it paid for four months that WWE wrestler Brett DiBiase, the son of Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase, spent at a luxury drug rehabilitation center in Malibu, California.)
Favre, for his part, paid the $1.1 million back, and says he thought the money was just for cutting radio ads that he actually did record. He also says he wasn’t aware any of the money that was directed to Prevacus (the concussion-nasal spray-drug company) or the volleyball center was meant to be used to reduce poverty. In Favre’s telling, he was just using contacts in government to find funding for projects that would benefit the state. (Prevacus, for example, said it planned to create local jobs by manufacturing and conducting trials of its drug in Mississippi.)
Is this a plausible claim?
Maybe, maybe not. Auditor Shad White, the one who initially exposed a number of the payments at issue, was appointed by then-governor Phil Bryant. His investigation focused on Nancy New and a now-former director of the state Department of Human Services named John Davis. White, moreover, says he began his investigation because Bryant himself tipped him off to potentially inappropriate use of welfare funds.
However! Nancy New has since pleaded guilty to several fraud charges and is now cooperating with prosecutors. And the reason Favre is in the news this week is because New’s attorney has entered some of his text messages into evidence in a civil lawsuit that the state filed in May against some of the people and entities that benefitted from the rogue TANF spending.
The texts revealed by New’s filing show that Favre was in contact with Bryant about the volleyball and Prevacus projects, and that Bryant in turn was in contact with New.
The texts moreover show that Bryant and Favre knew that New needed to have what you might call a “cover story” to allocate the volleyball-stadium funds. Ultimately, the $5 million was routed to the university under the pretense that it would be used to lease the school’s athletic facilities for occasional use in the course of “family and community outreach.” (According to one of Mississippi Today’s sources, only “a few classes” of this sort were ever held.) The site also says the $1.1 million personal payment that Favre returned also appears to have been part of an effort to direct money to the volleyball project. From the site:
“Hopefully she can put more details in the proposal,” Bryant said, according to a text Favre forwarded to New. “Like how many times the facility will be used and how many child will be served and for what specific purpose.”
The texts also show that Favre had at least a vague sense that it would be better for him if other people didn’t know what he, New, and Bryant were doing. Wrote the former quarterback to New in 2017: “If you were to pay me is there anyway [sic] the media can find out where it came from and how much?” (She told him no. Wrong!)
Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe also reported in April on texts between Bryant and the doctor behind Prevacor in which Bryant appeared to accept an offer of stock in the company just two days after he left the governorship in 2018. Bryant, in an interview with the publication, says he did not understand at the time that he was being offered equity in Prevacor and that in general he was “often so busy he didn’t register the content of messages people sent when they wanted something from him.”
Who amongst us has not gotten so overwhelmed with overdue tasks and unread emails that we accidentally seemed to accept a quid pro quo reward for having helped direct federal welfare funds to Brett Favre’s nasal-spray startup? Bzz bzz, there goes the phone again!
Is Favre in trouble himself?
He’s named in the state’s civil suit; his attorneys dispute the allegations made therein. He has not been charged with any crime.
Is there anything else that Mississippi could have been spending public funds on during this time period besides volleyball? Or was Southern Miss’s volleyball team probably the number-one issue, all told?
The city of Jackson announced in July that its water wasn’t safe to drink unless it was boiled first, an advisory that was in place for seven weeks—until Thursday, in fact. For a week that began in late August, the city’s water system actually stopped working entirely. Mississippi has also the country’s lowest life expectancy and highest rate of fetal mortality.
Would those numbers improve if the state spent even less money on welfare, thus attacking the culture of dependency even more aggressively?
Yes. The volleyball should continue until life expectancy improves!