By Dianne Gallagher, CNN
Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre says in a new statement he is being “unjustly smeared in the media” and wants to “set the record straight” over his connection to a massive welfare fraud scheme in his home state of Mississippi.
The former National Football League star for the Green Bay Packers insists he didn’t know the millions in grant money he helped secure for a volleyball center at his alma mater or the $1.1 million he was paid directly for a public service announcement campaign came from welfare funds.
Fox News first reported Favre’s statement early Tuesday as an exclusive. CNN later obtained the comments, which are the first to be attributed to Favre in months. They come a week after he switched legal representation to former Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann.
In 2020, a state audit found that more than $77 million was improperly used from the welfare program meant for the neediest families in Mississippi, including spending on expensive cars, a private school and pet projects of celebrities and the politically connected.
Six people have been criminally charged in connection with the scandal, which also involves two nonprofits — The Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC) and the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi. Several have pleaded guilty, including the founder of the MCEC. A lawyer for the FRC issued a statement in May to local news outlet Daily Journal that it “adamantly denied any intentional misspending of TANF funds or any other wrongdoing.”
Favre has not been criminally charged in connection to the case. He — along with about three dozen other people and entities — is being sued by the state in its attempt to recoup millions of dollars in misspent Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds. He has since repaid the $1.1 million paid directly to him, but the state auditor maintains he owes interest.
“I have been unjustly smeared in the media. I have done nothing wrong, and it is past time to set the record straight.” Favre said in his statement, “No one ever told me, and I did not know, that funds designated for welfare recipients were going to the University or me.
“I tried to help my alma mater (the University of Southern Mississippi), a public Mississippi state university, raise funds for a wellness center. My goal was and always will be to improve the athletic facilities at my university.”
Lawsuit reveals text messages involving Favre
Text messages filed in court documents over the past month as part of the ongoing civil suit show Favre working with Nancy New — who founded the MCEC and who has pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme — to secure millions of dollars from the state Department of Human Services to build the Southern Miss Volleyball Wellness Center, where his daughter played the sport at the time.
New’s son, Zachary New, acknowledged as part of his guilty plea in April that several million dollars in welfare money was spent to build the volleyball center by disguising the project as a “lease.”
State Auditor Shad White has pointed out several times to CNN that TANF funds cannot be used for construction or “brick and mortar” purposes — and such payments were used to build the facility.
In his statement, Favre maintains he didn’t know the money he secured to build a volleyball center came from welfare funds, claiming several agencies and attorneys vetted the funding.
“State agencies provided the funds to Nancy New’s charity, the Mississippi Community Education Center, which then gave the funds to the University, all with the full knowledge and approval of other State agencies, including the State-wide Institute for Higher Learning, the Governor’s office and the Attorney General’s office,” Favre wrote. “I was told that the legal work to ensure that these funds could be accepted by the university was done by State attorneys and State employees.”
On Tuesday, the state auditor’s office reiterated to CNN past comments from White, who has said regardless of whether state attorneys signed off on the funding, the volleyball center is not being used for needy people in Hattiesburg, where the college is located, so it is an improper use of TANF funds.
“It’s clear that (Favre) knew the funding source was DHS through texts that have been revealed in civil filings relating to this sprawling case,” Logan Reeves, communications director with the Mississippi State Auditor’s Office, told CNN on Tuesday, though he acknowledged it is possible Favre was unaware TANF funds specifically were being used.
The text messages between New and Favre show yearslong conversations about the funds, including discussions of getting the money from then-DHS director John Davis. He pleaded guilty to federal and state charges related to the welfare scheme last month and is now cooperating with authorities.
The texts also included messages about both New’s and Favre’s discussions about the volleyball project with then-Gov. Phil Bryant. Bryant, who was governor from 2012 to 2020, is not named as a defendant in the civil suit and has not been criminally charged in the case.
In a court filing in September, Bryant’s attorneys argued the then-governor continuously pushed back on Favre’s requests. Documents in that filing show Favre texted Bryant numerous times asking if the funding for the volleyball complex would be secured.
“Use of these funds [is] tightly controlled. Any improper use could result in violation of Federal Law,” Bryant texted to Favre on July 28, 2019, according to the filing.
In another exchange, Bryant texted to Favre, “We are going to get there. This was a great meeting. But we have to follow the law. I am to[o] old for Federal Prison. [smiley face, sunglasses emoji],” according to the filing.
Bryant’s attorneys argued text exchanges between Bryant and Favre showed “Governor Bryant did not know what had previously transpired between New, Davis, and Favre regarding the funding of the USM Volleyball Center” before Favre mentioned their involvement in July 2019.
According to the state audit, the Mississippi Community Education Center also directly paid Favre $1.1 million in TANF funds for promotional ads and speaking appearances that the state auditor says Favre never made.
Herschmann told Fox News that the former NFL star recorded commercials.
“Brett got paid for doing every radio spot that was requested,” Herschmann told Fox News. “He never got paid for a ‘no show’ appearance. Anyone who has claimed otherwise, does not know the true facts.”
“After I found out that the money I was paid for fundraising radio spots came from federal welfare funds, I returned all of it,” Favre said in his statement.
Favre returned $500,000 in May 2020 and repaid the remaining $600,000 in October, 2021 after the state auditor issued a demand letter for it, according to the auditor’s office.
But the auditor’s office maintains Favre still owes $228,000 in interest payments.
The text messages also show Favre and Nancy New discussing paying Favre directly for making public appearances or recording commercials. Favre indicated he planned to put that money into the volleyball project as well, which was over budget.
“If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre texted to New on August 3, 2017.
New responded, in part, “No, we never have had the information publicized. I understand you being uneasy about that though.”
Herschmann also offered an explanation of that text exchange.
“Brett entered into a private agreement to record a publicity pitch for a not-for-profit,” Herschmann told Fox News. “Like most celebrities, he didn’t want his source of income to be public. That’s why he asked would it become public.”
“He had no idea that the payment came from TANF and had he known, he never would have accepted that money.”
Favre played in the NFL for 20 seasons, retiring for good in 2010. His daughter, Breleigh Favre, played volleyball at Southern Miss in 2017 and 2018 before moving to the beach volleyball team in 2019. She transferred to Louisiana State University in 2022 as a graduate student.
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