JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi Department of Human Services on Monday changed its demands against retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre in a lawsuit that seeks repayment of misspent welfare money that was intended to help some of the poorest people in the U.S.
The department dropped its demand of $1.1 million against Favre, acknowledging he has already repaid that money for an unfulfilled pledge of public speeches. But it made a new demand of up to $5 million against Favre and a university sports foundation, saying money from an anti-poverty program was improperly used to pay for a volleyball arena at the University of Southern Mississippi.
The volleyball facility was a pet project of Favre, and he pledged to lead fundraising efforts for it. Previous filings in the civil lawsuit show text message exchanges between Favre and others about directing money to the volleyball facility from a nonprofit organization that had Human Services contracts. But until Monday, the Human Services lawsuit had not sought to recoup money for the facility.
Favre is a University of Southern Mississippi alumnus, and his daughter started playing volleyball at the Hattiesburg school in 2017. The volleyball facility, also called a wellness center, was completed in late 2019.
In a court filing Monday, the Department of Human Services acknowledged Favre has already repaid $1.1 million he received from the Mississippi Community Education Center. The nonprofit organization had contracts with the department to spend money through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families anti-poverty program.
The organization paid Favre for public speaking to help raise money for the volleyball facility, but the state auditor said Favre failed to make the speeches. The Department of Human Services court filing Monday said Favre “possibly recorded a single twenty-second radio advertisement” for that $1.1 million.
“In 2020, Favre received a demand from the Office of State Auditor requiring the $1.1 million be repaid with interest,” the new Human Services court filing said. “Recognizing that he had no right to payment for services never performed with funds designed for needy families, Favre repaid the $1.1 million to the State.”
Auditor Shad White said last week that Favre still owed more than $200,000 in interest on the $1.1 million.
The Human Services court filing Monday said Favre has not repaid $5 million in TANF money “that he orchestrated” for the Mississippi Community Education Center to pay to the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation to satisfy his guarantee to fund construction of a university volleyball facility.
The leaders of the Mississippi Community Education Center are Nancy New and her son Zachary New. They have both been on the board of directors for the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, as has Favre.
John Davis, who was Department of Human Services director from 2016 to 2019, agreed to enter into a sham lease with Nancy New and Zachary New to use welfare money to pay for construction of the volleyball facility, the new court filing says.
Favre's attorney Eric Herschmann said in a statement Monday that the department's new $5 million demand against Favre is groundless. Herschmann said the department left out key facts, including that the Mississippi attorney general's office signed off on the transfer of money from the Department of Human Services to the University of Southern Mississippi “all with the full knowledge and consent” of then-Gov. Phil Bryant and other state officials.
“That a private citizen, like non-lawyer Brett Favre, could have any liability under these circumstances is baseless,” Herschmann said.
Davis pleaded guilty in September to federal and state charges tied to the welfare misspending in what the state auditor has called Mississippi's largest public corruption case in decades. Nancy New and Zachary New pleaded guilty in April to state charges of misspending welfare money. All three await sentencing and have agreed to testify against others.
In a Nov. 28 court filing, Favre’s attorney asked a judge to dismiss Favre from the Human Services lawsuit that seeks to recover millions of dollars in misspent welfare money. The judge has not acted on that request.
Favre grew up in Mississippi and played football at the University of Southern Mississippi before a long career with the Green Bay Packers that included a win in Super Bowl XXXI. He was traded to the New York Jets in 2008 and played there one year before playing his final two seasons for the Minnesota Vikings.
Emily Wagster Pettus, The Associated Press