In Mississippi, well-being for well-connected people is spreading like a scandal

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When he became further entangled in a plan that diverted federal welfare money to build a volleyball stadium that cost more than $5 million at the University of Southern Mississippi, former soccer star Brett Favre texted a question to the head of a non-profit. for-profit organization providing funds intended to go to benefit recipients in the poorest state in the country.

“If you paid me,” he wrote in 2017 of a $1.1 million proposal for promotional efforts that would actually be funneled into the stadium’s construction, “is there any way the media could figure out where it was? comes from and how much?” Several years of text messages about the project came to light when they were filed in court last week and first published by Mississippi Today, the small nonprofit news site that has consistently led coverage of the story.

Much more than that payment has come to light in a massive scandal that reaches far beyond Mr Favre. A motley crew of political appointees, former football stars, former professional wrestlers, businessmen and several friends of the state’s former Republican governor are all accused of pocketing or misusing money intended for needy families.

On Thursday, John Davis, who served as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services under former Governor Phil Bryant, pleaded guilty to both federal and state charges of misappropriating federal welfare funds. Millions of dollars were transferred to friends and relatives, court documents say.

According to a lawsuit filed by the state in May, about $5 million was diverted to Ted DiBiase, a flamboyant retired wrestler once known as “The Million Dollar Man,” and two of his sons, as well as various entities associated with them. were associated, including a ministry. Much of the money went to fictional services, fake jobs, premium travel arrangements and even one son’s stay at a $160,000 luxury rehabilitation center in Malibu, California, the lawsuit alleges.

Likewise, the state alleges that Marcus Dupree, a former high school football phenom and professional running back, who was paid to act as a celebrity and motivational speaker, did not provide contractual services for the $371,000 he received to purchase. and to live in a sprawling residence with a swimming pool and adjacent horse pastures in a gated community.

Favre, who earned more than $140 million in his Hall of Fame career, was paid $1.1 million for speeches he never gave, the suit said. He also arranged for more than $2 million in government money to be funneled into a biotech start-up he had invested in, according to the lawsuit.

None of the three have been charged with crimes and all have denied having done anything. But even the most cynical of observers in Mississippi were stunned by the brutality of the activity in the charges and how deeply it reflected the injustices ingrained in the history of a state with the nation’s highest poverty rate.

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“Taking advantage of the poor is ongoing,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, a Democrat. He added: “It’s like Robin Hood in reverse – you take from the poor and give to the rich.”

The allegations of fraudulent grants were all set forth in the lawsuit filed in May against 38 individuals and organizations seeking repayment of more than $24 million. Instead of helping the poor, the federal welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, appeared to become a slush fund for pet projects and personal gain.

The state claims the money was diverted for services that were often never provided and, in any case, would have failed to comply with both federal and state regulations governing their distribution. The case follows a state audit released in May 2020 that suggests as much as $94 million in TANF funds may have gone astray.

Six people were arrested in February 2020 on charges of misuse of public funds in what state auditor Shad White has described as one of the largest public corruption cases in Mississippi’s history. Most of them have pleaded guilty; Hinds County District Attorney Jody E. Owens II said a joint investigation by federal and state investigators could lead to charges against more people.

Lawyers of the senior mr. DiBiase and Mr. Dupree did not respond to requests for comment. Michael T. Dawkins, the attorney representing Mr. DiBiase and his Heart of David Ministries, said in court documents that his clients had acted legally.

After the allegations first surfaced, an attorney for Mr. Dupree, J. Matthew Eichelberger, released a letter stating that his client had earned the money.

Bud Holmes, Mr Favre’s lawyer, did not respond to a request for comment. Both he and Mr Favre have repeatedly said the football legend was unaware the funds came from a federal welfare program.

When it comes to basic aid, Mississippi ranks 47th among US states in the amount of money it spends, said Aditi Shrivastava, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. Figures collected by the center indicate that the median maximum benefit nationally, which few people receive, was $498 per month in July 2021, compared to $260 in Mississippi.

Experts said the fraud was rooted in changes made to such programs in 1996, when benefits to poor families were replaced by block grants provided to states. They are supposed to distribute the money according to four federal guidelines that emphasize moving poor families into permanent employment, but in practice states and governors are given ample leeway.

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Ironically, the Mississippi legislature has also added a fifth directive, “to prevent fraud and abuse.” It was addressed to the aid recipients, but the state now claims the culprits were also the officials running the program.

Nancy New and her son Zach New, who ran a nonprofit educational organization called the Mississippi Community Education Center, pleaded guilty last spring to charges of misuse of TANF funds.

The text messages revealed in court documents suggested that former Governor Bryant, in conjunction with Ms. New, helped Mr. Favre provide federal funds for a state-of-the-art volleyball facility to be built at Mr. Bryant and Mr. Bryant. Favre’s alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where Mr. Favre’s daughter played the sport.

“Can we help him with his project?” Writing to Ms New in a July 2019 text, Mr Bryant noted that he had just spoken to Mr Favre.

In 2020, the state auditor’s report said the university received $5 million for a neplease to use all of its athletic facilities — including the volleyball center, which had not yet been built — for programs for the poor.

The money, paid for by the Mississippi Department of Human Services through the nonprofit News, actually went toward construction, the audit said. Last April, Mr. New pleaded guilty to transferring $4 million of TANF funds, which the federal government prohibits from using for “brick and mortar” projects, to the university.

Texts released last week seemed to indicate that the $1.1 million welfare contract to promote the center’s programs — work that never got done — was another way to funnel money into the stadium.

In the August 2017 text conversation about hiding the source of the money intended for the facility, Ms. New assured Mr. Favre that she understood he was “uncomfortable” but that kind of information was never published. The next day she wrote: “Wow, just got on the phone with Phil Bryant! He’s on board with us! We’re going to get this done!”

William M. Quin II, an attorney for Mr. Bryant, said the text messages did not support the argument that the governor encouraged and coached Mr. Favre and state officials in getting the grant. “The allegation is manifestly false,” he said in an emailed statement, dismissing the text messages as “cherry-picked”. Mr Bryant has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

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The volleyball stadium was not actually part of the lawsuit. Last July, after J. Brad Pigott, a former U.S. attorney hired by the state to recover the lost millions, began subpoenaing information about what happened in college, he was fired. Mr Favre has repaid the state $1.1 million – although the state auditor has said he still owes $228,000 in interest.

Organizations that help the poor have long worried that lockdowns awarded by governors could be an invitation to abuse, said Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, the director of the Southern Regional Office of the Children’s Defense Fund.

“There was a danger that that money would become a slush fund long before this debacle,” she said.

In Mississippi, they and others said, the problem is compounded by the fact that in recent years Republican governors and state legislatures have been ideologically opposed to government programs designed to help the poor. “They probably thought it was funny to use money that – in their minds – should go to people who didn’t deserve it,” she said of the accused officials.

Mississippi is one of 12 states that have refused to expand Medicaid and regularly turned down federal money intended to improve medical treatment, housing and childcare, among other things, said Congressman Mr. Thompson. At the end of 2020, Mississippi had $47 million in unspent TANF funds, Ms Shrivastava said.

At the University of Southern Mississippi, faculty members say the school is proud to admit first-generation students from the kind of families the money was intended for. “Nobody is very happy about it,” Denis Wiesenburg, the faculty senate chair and professor of marine science, said of the recent unwanted attention. “We recognize that it has tarnished the university’s reputation.”

The scandal has seeped out over the years, largely because of the persistent Mississippi Today coverage. But that does not soften the anger of those most affected.

Carol Burnett, the executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, a nonprofit, said people were appalled that tens of millions of dollars that should have been spent on initiatives such as improved public transportation or childcare for the working poor were apparently being handed over. instead to rich political cronies. “They see that this money that is meant to help people like them is being misused and passed on to people who don’t need help,” she said. “It’s infuriating.”

The message In Mississippi, welfare for the well-connected like a scandal spreads first on New York Times.

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