Text messages released as part of a civil lawsuit related to misspent welfare funds in Mississippi allegedly show former Gov. Phil Bryant worked to help former NFL and Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre obtain funds to build a volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Just left Brett Farve (sic). Can we help him with his project,” Bryant wrote to Nancy New, the founder of the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, in a July 2019 message. “We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course.”
In a separate conversation nearly two years prior, Favre wrote to New about his concerns about media publicity.
“If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre wrote in an August 2017 message.
“No, we never have had that information publicized,” New said.
The next day, New texted Favre with an update: “Wow, just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with us! We will get this done!”
More than two years later, Bryant texted New to ask whether she had gotten any of the new programs through Mississippi’s Department of Human Services (DHS). New responded, in part, that “someone” was “definitely pulling for us behind the scenes,” and thanked Bryant. He responded with a smile emoji.
The text messages were included in a legal filing Monday as part of a civil lawsuit brought by the Mississippi DHS related to misspent welfare funds. Attorney Thomas Bufkin, who represents New’s non-profit Mississippi Community Education Center, one of the defendants, included the texts as part of a motion to compel Bryant to produce further documents.
The lawsuit stems from an investigation into how the state spent tens of millions of dollars in federal money that was intended to go to those most in need – the largest public fraud scheme in the state’s history, according to the state’s auditor.
The media outlet Mississippi Today, which has covered the scheme for several years, has reported that at least $5 million of the welfare funds were channeled to build a new volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi. Favre played football for the school from 1987-90 and his daughter played volleyball there 2017-2022.
In April, New and her son were convicted for their roles in a scheme to use the welfare funds for the construction of the volleyball center. Neither Bryant nor Favre have been charged with wrongdoing.
Bryant’s attorney William M. Quin II issued a statement in response to the filing.
“Governor Bryant notified Nancy New’s attorney that he would produce the requested documents even though he isn’t a party to the lawsuit. All of the documents are privileged, so Governor Bryant requested that New’s attorney agree to a protective order that would allow the documents to be used in court with certain reasonable restrictions,” Quin said.
“Cases should be tried in courts of law where rules of evidence govern and privileges are respected. They should not be tried in the press, where innuendo and speculation sometimes get confused with actual facts. It appears that New’s attorney prefers to try his client’s case in the latter as opposed to the former.”
Favre’s attorney Bud Holmes denied any wrongdoing. “Since the very beginning, Brett has been honorable from day one to today,” he said.
University of Southern Mississippi did not respond to a request for comment.
How we got here
In May 2020, Mississippi’s state auditor announced that the state’s Department of Human Services wasted tens of millions of dollars in federal welfare grant funds through misspending, personal use and spending on family members, friends of staffers and grantees, including Favre.
The eight-month long investigation showed that the department gave more than $98 million to two non-profits: The Mississippi Community Education Center and the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi.
Of the $98 million, $94 million was “questioned,” meaning it was either definitively misspent or auditors were unable to determine if it was legally spent. Most of the money, given over three years, from 2016 to 2019, came from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, state auditor Shad White said.
Among the “questioned” spending is a series of payments made to Favre by the Mississippi Community Education Center.
The audit shows that Favre Enterprises was paid $500,000 in December 2017 and $600,000 in June 2018 in return for speeches at multiple events. The auditor’s report, however, states that “upon a cursory review of those dates, auditors were able to determine that the individual contracted did not speak nor was he present for those events.”
A follow-up audit conducted by an accounting firm in Maryland found that more than $77 million was improperly used from the state’s welfare program through the non-profits.
Favre, a Mississippi native, made millions of dollars during his stellar NFL career from 1991 to 2010, primarily as a quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
In October 2021, Favre repaid the state $600,000 but authorities said he still owed $228,000 in interest.
“I have never received monies for obligations I didn’t meet,” Favre said in a tweet in May 2020. “… I was unaware that the money being dispersed was paid for out of funds not intended for that purpose, and because of that I am refunding the full amount back to Mississippi.”
Holmes, his attorney, said Wednesday that Favre did not know the origin of the funds.
“He had no idea where it came from. When it developed later that this money he was paid for speaking came out of money designed by the government … for the less fortunate or poor people, Brett paid it back,” Holmes said.
CNN’s Gregory Lemos and Kelly Mena contributed to this report.