Retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre is embroiled in a controversy about the misuse of public funding in his home state that could tarnish his reputation and lead to legal problems. Favre and other noteworthy Mississippians allegedly collaborated to direct funds intended for needy families to a volleyball stadium project at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter played on the volleyball team.
Favre has not been charged with a crime. His attorneys insist the Hall-of-Fame QB broke no law and lacked knowledge of any scheme to wrongfully funnel money.
But Favre is a defendant in a civil lawsuit brought by the Mississippi Department of Human Services in May. The agency insists that Favre, along with more than two dozen others—including retired pro wrestler and now minister Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase—wrongfully received money from an anti-poverty program. DiBiase’s son, Brett, is a former administrator for the Mississippi Department of Human Services who pleaded guilty in 2020 to a felony charge of making fraudulent statements. The son, who is also a retired pro wrestler, was accused of conspiring to misappropriate funds, such as paying for his stay at a luxury Malibu drug rehab center.
The case has been described as one of the farthest-reaching public fraud cases in recent history, and some of the accused have reached plea deals with federal and state prosecutors. Of likely concern to Favre—the cooperators share evidence and testimony that may implicate alleged conspirators. While the civil case only threatens Favre, who earned about $141 million over 16 NFL seasons, with financial penalty, the possibility of being criminally charged for conspiracy or fraud is a far more ominous risk.
Even if Favre, who the state says owes about $228,000 from interest on public money, is found to have complied with the law, serious questions have arisen about his ethics and judgment.
In 2017, Favre and Nancy New, the former executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, texted about the nonprofit paying Favre for speaking engagements and promotional events. In turn, Favre was expected to redirect payments to the new volleyball facility.
Favre, court records indicated, asked New, “If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?” New, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud charges, assured him not to worry. New alleges that Phil Bryant instructed her to pay Favre $1.1 million in welfare money; Favre later returned the money after not participating in any speaking engagements and promotional events. Bryant, who served as Mississippi’s governor from 2012 to 2020, has not been charged with a crime and denies any wrongdoing.
Two years later, Bryant allegedly texted New, “Just left Brett Farve [sic]. Can help him with his project. We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course.” Court documents, as reported by ESPN, indicate that Bryant also exchanged texts in 2019 with Favre, and the governor advised the former NFL player that use of money intended for the “low income community” is “tightly controlled” and that “any improper use could result in violation of Federal Law.”
Favre, while referring to the prospect of additional funding for the project, texted Bryant that “we obviously need your help big time and time is working against.” Bryant, also by text, seemed to share Favre’s enthusiasm but cautioned “we have to follow the law.”
Earlier this year, Zachary New, who worked with his mother at the nonprofit, pleaded guilty to charges in which he acknowledged a role in “disguise[ing]” the stadium deal as a lease in order to work around a state law that prohibited the project.
Mississippi Today asked Favre in 2020 if he had discussed the project with Bryant, and he replied “no.” Discussions with journalists, like Favre’s, do not take place under oath.
As a result of Favre’s involvement in the case, his weekly NFL show for SiriusXM has been put on hold, a company spokesperson confirmed to Variety, and ESPN Milwaukee has temporarily suspended The Brett Favre Show, NBC Sports reported.
Mississippi has the highest poverty rate of the 50 states. The capital, Jackson, is battling a drinking water crisis that at one point left about 150,000 residents without safe water.
(Note: The author taught at a law school between 2005 and 2008 where a member of the New family was a student.)