Brett Favre earned nearly $140 million as a star NFL quarterback over two decades and millions more in product endorsements.
But that didn't stop the state of Mississippi from paying Favre $1.1 million in 2017 and 2018 to make motivational speeches — out of federal welfare funds intended for needy families. The Mississippi state auditor said Favre never gave the speeches and demanded the money back, with interest.
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Favre has repaid the fees, although not the $228,000 in interest the auditor also demanded. But the revelation by the auditor that $70 million in TANF welfare funds was doled out to a multimillionaire athlete, a professional wrestler, a horse farm and a volleyball complex are at the heart of a scandal that has rocked the nation's poorest state, sparking parallel state and federal criminal investigations that have led to charges and guilty pleas involving some of the key players.
Favre hasn't been accused of a crime or charged, and he declined an interview. His lawyer, Bud Holmes, said he did nothing wrong and never understood he was paid with money intended to help poor children. Holmes acknowledged that Favre had been questioned by the FBI in the case, a fact that hasn't previously been reported.
The saga, which has been boiling at low grade for 2½ years, drew new attention in July, when the state welfare agency fired a lawyer who had been hired to claw back some of the money, just after he issued a subpoena seeking more information about the roles of Favre and the former governor, Phil Bryant, a Republican. The current governor, Republican Tate Reeves, acknowledged playing a role in the decision to sack Brad Pigott, accusing the former Bill Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney of having a political agenda. But the state official who first uncovered the misspending and fraud, auditor Shad White, is a Republican.
In his first television interview since he was fired, Pigott said his only agenda was to get at the truth and to recoup U.S. taxpayer funds sent to Mississippi that he says were "squandered."
"The notion of tens of millions of dollars that was intended by the country to go to the alleviation of poverty — and to see it going toward very different purposes — was appalling to many of us," he said. "Mr. Favre was a very great quarterback, but having been a great NFL quarterback, he is not well acquainted with poverty."
Pigott, who before he was fired sued on behalf of Mississippi's welfare agency, naming Favre and 37 other grant recipients, laid ultimate blame at the feet of top Mississippi politicians, including Bryant.
"Governor Bryant gave tens of millions of dollars of this TANF welfare money to a nonprofit led by a person who he knew well and who had more connections with his political party than with the good people in Mississippi who have the heart and the skills to actually cajole people out of poverty or prevent teenage pregnancies," he said.
In an interview with Mississippi Today, Bryant said he never knew the grants came from welfare money. His lawyer didn't respond to requests for comment.
The person in charge of the nonprofit group Pigott was referring to is Nancy New, a close friend of Bryant's wife. New and her son have pleaded guilty to state and federal charges and agreed to cooperate. New, a key player in doling out the money, said in a court document that Bryant was among those involved in directing the transactions. Her lawyer declined to comment.
The former head of the state welfare agency, John Davis, has pleaded not guilty to state charges of bribery and conspiracy, and law enforcement officials say the investigations continue.
Favre defended himself in a series of tweets last year against charges from state auditor White that he accepted state money for speeches he never intended to give.
"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," Favre tweeted.
The speeches aren't the only welfare grants tied to Favre. Text messages obtained by the website Mississippi Today and authenticated by Pigott show that Favre sought a $3.2 million grant to a drug company in which he was a shareholder and a $5 million award that built a volleyball arena at the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter played the sport and where he played football. Favre's lawyer declined to comment.
The drug company, Prevacus, was touting treatments to mitigate the effects of concussions, although none were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In some texts, Favre suggested awarding shares in the drug company to Bryant while he was governor.
"Don't know if legal or not but we need cut him in," Favre texted a company official in November 2018, referring to Bryant. Following up three days later, Favre wrote, "Also if legal I'll give some of my shares to the Governor."
Bryant has said he never would have accepted such an offer.
"All of it remains quite a mystery," Pigott told NBC News, "as to why Mr. Favre would get the benefit of millions of dollars in TANF welfare money, both for a fee for speeches he didn't make, $2 million-plus to go to a company in which he was the largest outside individual investor and $5 million for his alma mater to play volleyball in a volleyball building."
The state auditor said he found other "no show" contracts benefiting former pro athletes and family members of Davis, the welfare agency director.
The auditor said Davis directed one contract to Austin Smith, his nephew, who was paid more than $400,000 to provide "coding skills" classes even though prosecutors allege he had no such skills "and did not know how to teach."
At least $3 million went to Ted DiBiase, a retired professional wrestler. Marcus Dupree, a former college football star, also received $370,000 in welfare funds, which prosecutors say partly went to fund his horse ranch.
Paul LaCoste, who is the current governor's athletic trainer, was paid $300,000 in welfare funds to run a fitness boot camp for legislators.
DiBiase, Dupree, LaCoste and Smith didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The scandal has also spotlighted the meager scope of Mississippi's welfare program and provided a stark reminder of the Clinton-era welfare reform that provided states with block grants and wide latitude in how they spend it. According to state figures, Mississippi rejects more than 90% of those who apply for the federal welfare benefit known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. This year 2,500 children received benefits, state officials said, in a state with 192,000 poor children.
One of those who had trouble getting help was Tamara Edwards, who raised four children on her own while working a series of low-wage jobs.
She once received welfare vouchers for child care, and in 2009 she applied again, she said. Even though her income was low enough, she was denied.
"They told me they didn't have the funds," said Edwards, who now works as a cook at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.
Advocates and state legislators say Mississippi's welfare agency, under years of conservative Republican state governments, has a history of questionable spending and a lack of transparency.
"TANF has been a slush fund for a long time," said Oleta Fitzgerald, who is the director of the Children's Defense Fund's Southern Regional Office and is based in Jackson, the state capital. "Mississippi is the poorest doggone state in the country — where is the money, and what are they doing with it? There is nobody on welfare — welfare participation rates are way down — and no one knows where that money is being spent."
Aisha Nyandoro, the chief executive of Springboard to Opportunities, a local nonprofit group that works with residents of affordable housing, said: "And DHS [the state Department of Human Services] will tell you that the reason that they cannot go about allocating the TANF funds is because they can't find any families who are eligible. Go outside and throw a rock. It's Mississippi. You can find an eligible family."
Jarvis Dortsch, a former state legislator who heads the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that when he was a member of the Legislature, "I could not get a list of how the money was being spent."
Dortsch said he had to resort to secrecy.
"Someone had snuck me a list — it didn't have [a] DHS [logo] on it — they had it printed out and snuck it out," he said.
Shad White, the auditor, told NBC News the investigation goes on. "My office is continuing the work we started over two years ago on what is now the largest public fraud case in our state's history," he said. "We will also continue to work with our state and federal partners to be sure each person responsible for this massive scheme is held fully accountable under the law."