Last May, Mississippi native Brett Favre became embroiled in the largest case of public fraud in state history. The Hall of Fame quarterback was one of the original 38 defendants named in a civil lawsuit filed by the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) seeking to recoup Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds that were diverted to the rich and powerful. A state audit found that at least $77 million in welfare funds was misspent.
At the heart of the dispute between MDHS and Favre is a volleyball facility built in 2019 at Favre’s alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi. Favre donated his own money and helped raise funds for the facility, and text messages, which have become public in legal filings as part of the civil lawsuit, show he pushed state officials for funding during the time his daughter was on the team. The university’s athletic foundation received $5 million in TANF funds.
According to the state audit and the civil lawsuit, Favre was also paid $1.1 million from TANF funds for speeches the auditor says Favre never made. He eventually paid the money back, but the auditor has demanded he also pay $228,000 in interest. Prevacus, a company developing a concussion drug in which Favre was the top outside investor and stockholder, also received TANF funds.
Eight people have been indicted, six of whom have pleaded guilty for their involvement, including former MDHS director John Davis and Nancy New, the head of the Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC), a nonprofit through which much of the funding flowed. Favre has denied wrongdoing and has not been criminally charged. Last week, a judge filed a suppression order limiting pre-trial publicity until the case, which now has 47 defendants, goes to trial or is resolved. A spokesperson for Favre declined to comment.
A year since Favre’s alleged involvement became public, the investigation is ongoing, and many questions remain. Here’s what we know through court filings, text messages and other documents obtained by ESPN, presented in uncorrected form.
April 20, 2017: Favre texts Mississippi governor Phil Bryant. “… Deanna and I are building a volleyball facility on campus and I need your influence somehow to get donations and or sponsorships …” Favre’s text reads in part. Bryant responds that he is “all in.”
June 15, 2017: A report from a USM Athletic Foundation board meeting notes that Favre gave $650,000 for the volleyball project.
June 23, 2017: Favre emails FedEx founder and chairman Frederick W. Smith: “Deanna and I wanted to do something for Southern Miss so we decided to build a Vball facility on campus …” he writes. “… I know there isn’t a lot of exposure in volleyball but I thought I would ask anyway if you would consider sponsorship which the good news it’s the first of its kind in country and is gonna be really awesome when done.” Patrick Fitzgerald, a FedEx SVP, later responds: “I would love to hear more about your plans for the volleyball facility and possible FedEx support.”
June 28, 2017: Favre receives an email from Dan Sawyer, founder and CEO of Brock USA, an artificial turf company, with research on flooring options for the volleyball facility.
July 16, 2017: USM athletic director Jon Gilbert forwards Favre an email he sent to New, who is also a USM graduate. Gilbert writes: “FYI – will send you her contact info.” In the original email, Gilbert tells New that the volleyball facility will cost about $4 million and “Brett and Deanna have agreed to help with fundraising for the facility.”
July 18, 2017: Favre meets with New. “Great to talk with you through this,” New texts him later that day. “Thank you for all that you are doing and we plan to work hard to make this happen.” After the meeting, Davis tells New in a text that the volleyball facility should be named after Favre. “If we are able to give them the 4 [million] I think we should ask for them to name the Brett Favre Center,” he writes.
July 22, 2017: Favre texts Bryant the latest proposals and renderings for the facility. “… if we can find a contractor that would say hey rather than give you money I’ll build for free!! Maybe you know of someone.” “I all over it,” Bryant replies.
July 24, 2017: Favre and Davis are among those meeting at USM, according to a September 2022 court filing. “John mentioned 4 million and not sure I heard him right,” Favre texts New later that day.
July 26, 2017: Favre texts New that Gilbert is “very Leary of accepting such a large grant.”
July 29, 2017: Favre texts New: “Also I want to help you and was thinking a PSA is one option that could be done quick and easy to put together.” He also texts: “… I could record a few radio spots here initially … whatever compensation could go to USM.”
The same day, Favre texts New again about Gilbert’s concern about the money. “Jon made the comment about using money you allocated to athletic department and although signed off on by all could raise negative concerns etc… with this project and others. My fear is he doesn’t except all that you and John can allocate even if it is legally signed off on.”
July 31, 2017: In a series of texts with New, Favre asks, “Would this also solve the brick and mortar issue? … as long as we can use the money any way we choose somehow.” (TANF funds cannot legally be used for brick and mortar purposes.) Favre adds: “Will the public perception be that I became a spokesperson for various state funded shelters, schools, homes etc….. and was compensated with state money? Or can we keep this confidential.” New replies that it would be confidential. “So if we keep confidential where money came from as well as amount I think this is gonna work,” Favre later writes.
Aug. 2, 2017: “They are scared to death it seems,” Favre texts New. According to a court filing, this text is in reference to USM.
Aug. 3, 2017: Favre texts New: “If you were to pay me is there any way the media can find out who it came from and how much?” New says that information is not publicized. One day later, New texts Favre that she just got off the phone with Bryant. “He is on board with us! We will get this done!” she writes.
Aug. 10, 2017: Favre texts New: “My goal is for you and I to build what state and ole miss have or at least close.”
Aug. 26, 2017: Favre’s daughter, Breleigh, makes her first collegiate start with the Southern Miss women’s indoor volleyball team in a win against Jackson State. In 2019, she moved from indoor to beach volleyball. Between 2018 and 2020, when his daughter played at USM, Favre’s foundation, Favre 4 Hope, gave the USM Athletic Foundation more than $130,000 — up from the combined $47,900 the foundation donated from 2011 to 2017.
Sept. 27. 2017: Gilbert emails Favre an update on the volleyball project in which he tells Favre that USM has $1.8 million in hand and plans to add an office for MCEC on-site, as well as details about the wood surface, beach volleyball courts and potential sponsorship for the scoreboard.
Oct. 19, 2017: New texts Favre that the volleyball project has been approved by the Institutions of Higher Learning, the committee that oversees Mississippi’s public universities. “It’s a go,” New texts Favre. USM announces the project in a news release that day. Favre responds by telling New that Gilbert said $500,000 needs to go toward USM’s basketball arena and another $500,000 toward the “maintenance fund.” New says “we will get the rest.”
Oct. 26, 2017: Favre texts New: “Nancy, is it possible to have funding in future? Similar to this year?” She replies, “I am not sure we can pull the 5 mil again but I do think we will get more. What are you thinking and how much?” Favre responds that he wants “to get beach vball up and running” and “an indoor facility is next big project for us.”
Nov. 6, 2017: MCEC pays the USM Athletic Foundation $2.5 million, according to a 2019 Mississippi state audit.
Nov. 10, 2017: USM Associate AD Daniel Feig asks Favre to review a letter that the university plans to send to all commercial vendors who will supply the facility, such as HVAC companies and ice machine suppliers. Feig then emails the letter to the vendors, with Favre and athletic director Gilbert cc’ed. “Please direct any questions you have to Jon, Brett or me,” he writes.
Nov. 22, 2017: In an email conversation with Gilbert and a potential vendor about the cost of a coaching technology, Favre writes, “Jon is correct in regards to affordability. I can’t stress enough how much we need help just to stay afloat!!”
Dec. 5, 2017: MCEC pays the USM Athletic Foundation another $2.5 million, according to the state audit.
Dec. 27, 2017: Favre texts New: “Nancy Santa came today and dropped some money off … thank you my goodness thank you. We need to set up the promo for you soon.” Favre Enterprises received $500,000 that month, a 2019 Mississippi state audit confirmed.
Jan. 23, 2018: In an email, an architect tells university officials that Favre “continues to contact us almost daily asking for updates on the schedule.”
March 28, 2018: Favre texts New an update on the facility. “The bids all are in and shockingly the lowest is 6.9. The architects were confident it would come in lower than what we have saved. Really frustrating.”
April 23, 2018: Favre tells New via text that he and Deanna “are gonna cut a check for the difference to at least get started.” He asks, “You still think we can get some through John once again?”
May 2, 2018: Brett and Deanna Favre sign a donor agreement with the USM Athletic Foundation holding them responsible for $1.4 million to fund the construction of the volleyball facility. “Donors shall personally contribute any funds not collected from third parties,” the agreement reads.
May 9, 2018: Favre texts Bryant about finding labor to build lockers for the facility. “I’m still trying to save money on Vball facility. We have visitor and Home lockers yet to build and Warren Hood is donating any lumber,” he writes. “If someone would build them on there spare time. Poncho mentioned the prison industry possibly as a builder.” Nine days later, Bryant texts Favre that he has found someone to build the lockers and he himself would pay for the work. “If you have time to meet him there one day I bet we would get a really good price,” Bryant writes.
May 20, 2018: New texts Favre that she will send $650,000 for the facility.
June 2018: Favre Enterprises receives a $600,000 payment from MCEC, according to the state audit.
Nov. 26, 2018: Favre tells Bryant about Prevacus and asks him to speak to the company’s founder, Jacob VanLandingham. “…I invested in a company called Prevacus and it’s a drug that will treat concussions we need help politically to try to get FDA approval,” Favre texts. The next day, he texts Bryant that he has invested $850,000 of his own money in Prevacus. “I believe 100% in Jake and this drug but he needs funding like now. So obviously any help from you is needed immediately!!!”
Dec. 26, 2018: Favre, VanLandingham, Bryant and potential investors meet for dinner. The next day, Bryant texts VanLandingham and Favre, “So glad y’all were here. We have our orders and we are moving ahead.” Favre replies, “It’s 3rd and long and we need you to make it happen!!” Bryant replies, “I will open a hole.”
Dec. 28, 2018: Favre sends New’s contact information to VanLandingham. “Text Nancy and include me if you want and basically ask her if she can help with investors, grants or any other way possible. She has strong connections and gave me 5 million for Vball facility via grant money. Offer her whatever you feel like.” VanLandingham texts New the same day to introduce himself. Favre replies, “Glad you 2 will connect.”
Dec. 30, 2018: In a text exchange with VanLandingham, Favre says about New: “I believe if it’s possible she and John Davis would use federal grant money for Prevacus.”
Dec. 31, 2018: Favre asks VanLandingham in a text, “Did you offer Nancy anything?” VanLandingham responds, “She said she’d would love some shares but we didn’t discuss how many yet,” and “I’d say we give her 70k shares per 1M she touches in incoming investments.”
Jan 2, 2019: New and Davis meet with VanLandingham and Favre at Favre’s home. Afterward, VanLandingham texts New and offers her shares in Prevacus: “Would 50k work for now?”
Jan. 11, 2019: Bryant texts Favre the contact information for Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate. “He know how to work the FDA to get clearance for trials. … He can be a huge help,” Bryant writes.
Jan. 14, 2019: Favre texts VanLandingham: “This all works out we need to buy her and John Davis surprise him with a vehicle I thought maybe John Davis we could get him a raptor.”
July 16, 2019: New texts Favre that she is “concerned” she may not be able to help him in August as planned. “I am ok, just politics and people,” she writes. Favre and VanLandingham discuss via text alternate funding possibilities for the volleyball facility and Prevacus. “Nancy has been awesome to me and has paid 4.5 million for a 7 million dollar facility. And she said it was all gonna be taken care of until this morning,” Favre writes. “Suddenly she said I don’t think I can do anymore. So now I am looking at a big pay out.” VanLandingham asks, “Maybe we try the governor to find other sources?”
Later that day, Favre texts Bryant about New’s U-turn. “And also I paid for 3/4 of Vball facility and the rest was a joint project with her and John which was saving me 1.8 million…” he writes. “… we need your help very badly Governor and sorry to even bring this up.”
Bryant then texts New that he has “just left” Favre. “Can we help him with his project,” the governor texts.
July 22, 2019: Favre texts Bryant about a potential football facility: “Governor this Friday Deion Sanders and his son are coming for a recruiting visit. He is a QB and could be best in country. I already with Nancy started talking about a indoor facility but I think we have got to get one to stay up with everyone else. But it won’t happen anytime soon if you and Nancy can’t help. I would like to tell him we are about to start building in the next year and half.” Bryant tells him that they are awaiting a review from the state auditor.
July 28, 2019: Favre follows up with Bryant about Sanders’ visit and the new football facility. “As I suspected Deion’s son asked where the indoor facility was and I said we don’t have one but are hoping to break ground in less than 2 years. Now that will not happen without your help/commitment!!!” he texts. “I know we have the Vball to complete first and I’m asking a lot with that and I believe 100% that if you can get this done Nancy will reach and help many and in the recruiting war will give USM instant credibility and become relevant again.”
Bryant replies: “Nancy has some limited control over Federal Funds in the form of Grants for Children and adults in the Low Income Community. Use of these funds are tightly controlled. Any improper use could result in violation of Federal Law. … As soon as the audit is complete we will know if the project at USM is a proper expenditure.”
Aug. 8, 2019: Bryant asks Favre via text whether New’s funding will be used for brick and mortar. “No brick and mortar …” Favre replies.
Aug. 21, 2019: “Brett Farve is blowing me up over that proposal Nancy New submitted for the Center at Southern Miss,” Bryant texts MDHS executive director Chris Freeze. “I have told him it would be reviewed just like all other projects. Brett needs more to do in his life just now. … I really do think he believes in the project.”
Aug. 24, 2019: Favre texts Bryant: “Governor the indoor volleyball facility could be completed any day now and I’m sure the university will be calling for the remaining 1,048,000. I can try to buy some time. Your our starting QB and we can only go as far as you take us.”
Sept. 4, 2019: After a meeting with Bryant, Favre texts him: “… And we feel that your name is the perfect choice for this facility and we are not taking No for an answer! You are a Southern Miss Alumni, and folks need to know you are also a supporter of the University.” Bryant replies, “We are going to get there. This was a great meeting. But we have to follow the law. I am to old for Federal Prison.”
Sept. 6, 2019: Favre texts Bryant asking whether he should pay the remaining balance on the volleyball facility himself or ask for an extension. Bryant tells him to ask for an extension. “The Bid process the Director talked about is state law,” he writes. “To override or not obey the law would be a potentially criminal offense. … I promise you, there is nothing more I can do except follow the law..”
Oct. 22, 2019: Bryant texts Favre, “You heard from Trump about going to his Rally?” Favre says he can probably fly there. “Perfect.. The President ask me to make sure you were attending,” Bryant replies. “We need him to champion treatment of Brain Injuries among NFL players. He can make all the difference with your help…we have a cure.” The next day, Bryant tells Favre that the White House will call him.
Nov. 5, 2019: On Election Day, Favre texts Bryant about his potential successor, then Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves. “If our guy wins I’ll feel better about things but if the other guy wins I feel like Nancy and I can forget our vision for Southern Miss.”
Nov. 11, 2019: Bryant texts Freeze about Favre again: “Brett Farve keeps asking about the project.” On the same day, Favre texts Bryant, “Think you will get the wellness center project done?”
Nov. 22, 2019: VanLandingham texts Favre and Bryant that the White House is planning a youth brain health study, with Prevacus in the lead. They later discuss inviting athletes such as Tom Brady, Herschel Walker and Tiger Woods for the summit, which VanLandingham said would take place before the Super Bowl and include Trump greeting them in the Oval Office. There’s no evidence that any of these athletes were contacted or that the summit took place.
Dec. 2019: Construction on the volleyball facility, officially called the Wellness Center, is completed, according to the state audit.
Jan. 26, 2020: Favre asks Bryant if he can think of “anyone or any other way of getting funding for the remainder of Vball?” He texts that he just paid $350,000, and would give another $200,000 the following week. Favre says he texted Reeves, and Bryant tells him to do the same with Lieutenant Governor Delbert Hosemann and state senator Briggs Hopson.
Jan. 27, 2020: Favre texts Bryant: “Governor had a talk with Tate and he said he would get with his team on a plan. I’m sure with you in his ear that would help tremendously.” Bryant responds: “Good deal.. will make that happen.”
That same day, Bryant texts then-Southern Miss president Rodney Bennett. “Brett keeps asking to help him fund the Volleyball Facility but wanted to see your position before I go the LtGovernor.” Bennett responds: “…I’ve asked Brett to not do the things he’s doing to seek funding from state agencies and the legislature for the volleyball facility. … I will see, for the ‘umpteenth time’ if we can get him to stand down. The bottom line is he personally guaranteed the project, and on his word and handshake we proceeded. It’s time for him to pay up-it really is just that simple.”
“That’s was my thoughts,” Bryant responds. “Maybe he wants the State to pay off his promises. Like all of us I like Brett. He is a legend but he has to understand what a pledge means. I have tried many times to explain that to him.”
Feb. 5, 2020: Senior associate AD Brian Morrison emails Favre a list of donations the university has received for the volleyball facility that go toward his financial commitment. The 10 gifts total $753,378, about half of Favre’s $1.4 million commitment. Among the donors are then-Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, singer Jimmy Buffett’s charity and Bryant’s political action committee, according to an unredacted email obtained by Mississippi Today.
Davis, New and four others are arrested, and the welfare scandal becomes public for the first time.
Feb. 6, 2020: Favre texts Bryant again, asking him if he contacted Reeves. Bryant responds by sharing an article outlining the embezzlement scheme. Favre replies that he’s “well aware” of that story, and Reeves is looking at a bond bill to help with funding.
Feb. 27, 2020: Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe reports that $5 million of TANF funds from MCEC were used for the volleyball facility. The story mentions Favre and how he was credited with raising funds.
March 2, 2020: Favre texts Bryant about Wolfe. “Governor need your advice in regards to talking to this girl for Mississippi today about the connection with Prevacus,” he writes. “The truth is I did set up a meeting and in that meeting the way it was left was if any investment took place it was only if a manufacturing plant would be placed in the state to increase jobs. Now what was invested and how I don’t know and quite frankly I didn’t care. So do I decline are tell the truth.” He adds that his lawyer told him not to say anything.
April 30, 2020: The 2019 state audit reveals that Favre Enterprises was paid $1.1 million for speeches the auditor says Favre never made.
May 6, 2020: In a series of tweets, Favre responds to what was reported in the audit. He says in part: “I have never received monies for obligations I didn’t meet. To reiterate Auditor White’s statement, 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.” On the same day, Favre pays back $500,000 of the $1.1 million he was paid.
Sept. 16, 2020: Favre texts Bryant about FDA approval for the concussion drug. “It is very difficult,” Bryant texts. “But not if the right people are in our corner right?” Favre replies. Bryant tells Favre, “As always everyone must follow all rules, laws and procedures.”
Oct. 12, 2021: White sends a letter to Favre demanding that he pay back $828,000 — the outstanding $600,000 balance and $228,000 in interest.
Oct. 27, 2021: Favre pays $600,000 but does not include the interest.
Oct. 29, 2021: Favre sends out a series of tweets that read in part: “Of course the money was returned because I would never knowingly take funds meant to help our neighbors in need, but for Shad White to continue to push out this lie that the money was for no-show events is something I cannot stay silent about.” White responds to the tweets on the same day, writing in part: “These are lies. I am not going to hide how much you were paid, why you were paid, or conduct back room meetings to make this go away.”
May 9, 2022: The state files a civil lawsuit against 38 people, including Favre and VanLandingham.
Sept. 1, 2022: NBC News reports that Favre was questioned by the FBI. Bud Holmes, Favre’s lawyer at the time, later tells Mississippi Today that the FBI only asked Favre one question. “Brett laughingly told me that FBI asked if he’d ever been to Tupelo,” Holmes said.
Sept. 13, 2022: An investigative report by Mississippi Today shows text messages detailing how Favre, New and Bryant discussed how to divert at least $5 million for the volleyball stadium. Holmes denied to Mississippi Today that the former quarterback knew he received welfare funds. “Brett Favre has been honorable throughout this whole thing,” Holmes said.
Sept. 25, 2022: SiriusXM puts a weekly radio show hosted by Favre on hold.
Oct. 11, 2022: In a statement to Fox News Digital, Favre denies wrongdoing and says he had been “unjustly smeared” by the media. “I have done nothing wrong, and it is past time to set the record straight,” he continued. “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 USM, 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.”
Nov. 28, 2022: Favre’s lawyers file a motion to dismiss the MDHS complaint against him and Favre Enterprises. “It is apparent that MDHS has sued Favre, a Mississippi and national celebrity, in an effort to deflect responsibility for its own egregious wrongdoing,” the motion reads in part.
Dec. 5, 2022: The USM Athletic Foundation is added as a defendant to the lawsuit. “Through its directors and agents including Brett Favre, Nancy New, and Jon Gilbert,” the filing reads, “the Foundation understood that the source of the funding was federal grant funds paid to MDHS.”
Feb. 9, 2023: Favre files three separate defamation lawsuits against White, the Mississippi state auditor, as well as national sports commentators Shannon Sharpe and Pat McAfee. Favre’s lawsuit against White accuses the auditor of “shamelessly and falsely attacking Favre’s good name” to advance his political career.
April 24, 2023: A judge rules that Favre will remain in the civil lawsuit, writing that his attorneys’ arguments for dismissal were “unpersuasive and inapplicable.” His spokesman, Alex Pfeiffer, said in a statement: “Obviously, Brett Favre is disappointed in the court’s ruling. His legal team is exploring their options.”
May 4, 2023: After posting a video message defending himself, Bryant releases what he says are all his text messages related to the welfare investigation. Some of the messages, from 2019, include conversations with Favre and VanLandingham about White House assistance for brain injuries at a time when they were pursuing funding for Prevacus.
In a court filing on the same day, Favre again denies wrongdoing and demands a jury trial in the civil case. One day later, a Hinds County judge files a suppression order limiting pre-trial publicity until the case goes to trial or is resolved.
ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.
Brett Favre and the Mississippi welfare case explained