Newly released text messages from NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre show he was much more involved than previously known in pushing for millions of federal welfare dollars to be diverted from helping poor families to instead pay for a new volleyball facility at the school where his daughter played the sport.
The messages, released in a court filing this week, also reveal that Favre sought reassurances from a nonprofit executive that the public would never learn he was seeking millions of dollars in grants that ultimately came from the Mississippi welfare agency.
Favre has said publicly that he did not know the funds were welfare dollars and that he believes he did nothing wrong. He paid back $1.1 million that was given to him directly, but the state auditor says he still owes $228,000 in interest.
NBC News was first to report that the FBI has questioned Favre in the matter, but there is no indication Favre is a target of the FBI’s criminal investigation.
In July, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D.-Miss., asked the Justice Department to look into the role that Favre and former Gov. Phil Bryant played in the sprawling welfare scandal.
Favre’s lawyer, Bud Holmes, told NBC News that Favre behaved “totally honorably in everything,” and that there is nothing remarkable about the newly released texts.
The welfare funds in question were part of the $86 million Mississippi is given each year by the federal government to lift families out of poverty. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, with almost 200,000 children living below the poverty line.
The text messages were first reported by Mississippi Today and came to light on Monday through court filings in a civil case spurred by the largest public spending scandal in the state’s history. The state auditor uncovered $77 million in misspent welfare funds in February 2020. The state filed a civil suit against 38 defendants.
According to text messages and court filings, the idea to divert funds to the volleyball facility appears to have been discussed at a July 2017 meeting that included Favre, John Davis, the head of Mississippi’s welfare agency (known as the Department of Human Services, DHS), and Nancy New, whose charity was getting millions in grants from the state agency. New, Davis and Favre are defendants in the state's civil suit.
The text messages, which were part of a filing by New's attorney, do not establish that Favre knew the public funds discussed were welfare money.
The volleyball facility, which has now been completed, is at the University of Southern Mississippi, Favre’s alma mater.
The newly released text messages indicate Bryant, a Republican, was much more involved in the project as governor than previously known. Texts suggest he actively worked to get Favre the funding. On July 16, 2019, he texted New that he had just left a meeting with Favre, writing, “Can we help him with his project?”
A lawyer for Davis declined to comment. Davis has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery and conspiracy.
New’s nonprofit was supposed to be focused on running programs to help families in poverty. But New alleges in court documents that she was directed by Davis and Bryant to misspend millions of welfare funds by distributing it to Davis’ friends and family as well as to former professional wrestlers and Favre.
After the July 2017 meeting, Favre thanked New for the first financial installment for the facility. “Nancy thank you again!!! John [Davis] mentioned 4 million and not sure if I heard him right. Very big deal and can’t thank you enough.”
Four-million dollars was not enough to complete the project. And to get the remaining money that was needed, the texts indicate Favre and New came up with a plan. She would pay Favre $1.1 million in state funds directly and he would do a few radio ads. Then he said he would turn the money over to the volleyball project.
“I could record a few radio spots here initially. I’m sure right here. See how it is received and whatever compensation could go to USM,” Favre wrote.
New wrote back jokingly suggesting the compensation of “4 million dollars” with three smiley face emojis, “Just kidding,” she texted. “The first phase could be $500,000 and after Sept. we can renew. This is a good approach. What do you think?”
Favre responded, “Was just thinking that here is the way to do it!”
New offered that her son Zach New could write up a contract for Favre.
New and her son have both pleaded guilty to state charges of misspending public money that was supposed to be spent on Mississippians in poverty.
Over the course of the next two years, as Favre communicated with New, text messages show he had some concerns about the arrangement.
First he was worried that he might be too busy to do the radio spots. “My biggest concern is time commitment so we can manage that I’m good.”
New responded: “Please do not worry about your time commitment. We can only imagine how many directions you are pulled. Just a few things here and there, spread out will be plenty.”
At one point Favre gets worried that the payment to him from the state will become public.
“If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?”
“No, we never have had that information publicized,” Nancy texted back. “I understand you being uneasy about that though.”
By August, New confirmed that the then-governor was supportive. “Wow, just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with this, we will get this done!”
A few months later, in December 2017, Favre got the money from New and texted her. “Nancy Santa came today and dropped some money off,” he wrote, adding two smiley faces. “thank you my goodness thank you. We need to set up the promo soon. Your way to kind.”
By March 2018, construction costs for the volleyball facility were going up and Favre appeared to be worried the project would run out of money. He shared his concern with New via text.
A year later he asked again, “Nancy, are you still confident you can cover the $1.8 and that number will probably be less as we get closer.”
New responded: “In a meeting with John Davis now. He said we will cover much of it but may have to be in a couple of payments. We are on board!”
Often, the text messages show, Favre would strategize with New about how to ensure the money would be provided and how to get the governor to commit more funding. Would a phone call to the governor help? A meeting? A message? Favre texted New that he was asking the governor about the funds “weekly.”
Favre has said he didn’t know the money was welfare funding. The text messages show, however, that he understood the money flow between the governor, New and Davis — the head of the state welfare agency, DHS, that is dedicated to improving the lives of poor children and families in the state.
Favre also seems to have known both New and Davis well, at one point in 2019 texting, with more smiley faces, “I love John so much, and you too.”
At one point, when Davis left DHS, Favre texted New, “Any word? Meet the new director yet?”
In a statement on the released texts, an attorney for Bryant, Billy Quin, said the former governor had agreed to produce the texts "even though he isn't party to the lawsuit," and had requested that New's attorney “agree to a protective order that would allow the [texts] to be used in court with certain reasonable restrictions."
Bryant's attorney said that cases should be tried in court, not in the press. "It appears that New’s attorney prefers to try his client’s case in the latter as opposed to the former.”
Asked about the concern Favre expressed that the public would learn he was getting state grant money, Favre's lawyer, Bud Holmes, said Favre “just didn’t need the publicity” and thought “it would look bad to be getting money from a program.”
Holmes said Favre originally offered to make public appearances for free, but Nancy New, who ran the nonprofit that handed out the welfare grants, “kept saying she had a budget.”
Holmes said Favre did not know the funds came from the federal welfare program. “He didn’t understand where the grants came from,” said Holmes. “He had no idea.”
Asked why Favre, who was paid an estimated $140 million during his NFL career, didn’t just donate money for the volleyball facility, Holmes said, “He did donate a good bit, but that’s how it is with rich people. They raise money.”
Holmes added that comedian Jerry Lewis didn’t just donate money for his popular muscular dystrophy telethons, “he raised it.”
Holmes, who previously acknowledged that Favre had been interviewed by the FBI, said he has not been contacted recently by federal investigators.