Over the weekend, Brett Favre’s shows on SiriusXM and ESPN Milwaukee were put on hold amid increasing scrutiny of his involvement in a massive welfare fraud scam in Mississippi. Favre, a former quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, has faced questions over his ties to the scandal since 2020, when investigators found that more than $77 million in federal money meant for Mississippi’s poorest residents had been misspent, or pocketed, by government officials, former pro athletes, and nonprofit heads. For his part, Favre is accused of misappropriating roughly $8 million in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funding.
Last week, the nonprofit news site Mississippi Today published a bombshell story on texts between Favre, former Mississippi governor Phil Bryant, and Nancy New, the head of a nonprofit at the center of the scandal, who’s already pleaded guilty to fraud, bribery, and racketeering charges. Favre has been accused of receiving $1.1 million in welfare money from New’s nonprofit in “speaking fees” for talks he allegedly never gave. As he and New worked on the deal, he texted her: “If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?”
Though Favre returned that $1.1 million in 2021, a state official says he still owes $228,000 in interest. And that’s not the only accusation he’s facing. He also allegedly helped funnel $5 million in TANF money toward the construction of a new volleyball stadium at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter played the sport. (Favre claims he used the $1.1 million he received to help pay for the stadium.) On top of that, he’s been accused of working on a deal to have $2.1 million in TANF money spent on stock in Prevacus, a biotech company in which he was a major shareholder. He allegedly hashed out the deal with New and John Davis, the former head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Last week, Davis pleaded guilty to a long list of fraud and conspiracy charges related to his role in the welfare scam.
The text messages Mississippi Today published last week show that, at a minimum, Favre worked closely with two people at the center of this scandal who have already admitted they broke the law. Favre has denied wrongdoing, and as of now, he isn’t facing any criminal charges. But he has been questioned by the FBI. And according to sources who spoke with Mississippi Today, more people could wind up being charged as the investigation into the scandal continues.
For help figuring out what might happen next, VICE called up Howard Master, a former public corruption prosecutor at the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, who currently works as Managing Director and Counsel to the CEO at Nardello & Co., a global investigations firm. Master, an expert on corruption, financial crime, and investigations, weighed in on the allegations Favre is facing and what will determine whether he gets charged.
VICE: How perilous of a position would you say Brett Favre is in right now?
Howard Master: The individual who routed funds to him and to the biotech company that he had invested in, [Nancy New,] is cooperating with the government. I took a look at John Davis’ plea materials. And, though it’s not spelled out, it’s clear to me, based on my understanding of how the federal process works, that he is cooperating as well.
“I think it’s pretty clear a crime was committed.”
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Favre could face criminal charges out of this. It’s a crime to steal or defraud a government agency, particularly with respect to a federally funded program. Just the bare allegation that Brett Favre accepted $1.1 million for talks and promotional activity that arguably isn’t even permitted by the program is bad. But, even worse, it was for talks he never gave. That, by itself, exposes him to potential criminal liability. Moreover, it sounds like this was part of a larger scheme, at least according to the allegations, to funnel money to this volleyball stadium. So there’s also potential exposure for Brett Farve on the $5 million, and arguably on the biotech investment as well.
His greatest risk relates to money that he himself accepted. It seems from the text [he sent to New] that he knew this was welfare money. He knows that he didn’t provide the services that are described in the agreements. He knew it was a sham.
You said that there’s a chance Favre could face criminal charges here. How likely would you say it is that he’ll be charged?
That’s a distinct possibility. Certainly, the exposure of these text messages—that show, essentially, that Favre did know that this money was coming from a welfare agency, and that he did have communications with the governor about it, both of which appear to be contradicting his earlier statements—those are not good for him. That suggests he’s lying to the public. Why is he lying? This whole thing was a corrupt scheme at its inception. How could he possibly think that it was proper to get $1.1 million, even if it didn’t go directly into his pocket and went to fund the volleyball stadium? How could he think that it’s OK to get welfare money for not doing any work?
He has a lot of money, he has a lot of investments, but as far as we can tell, he doesn’t have much experience with these programs, unlike some of the other people who are getting charged. So he might have that out. But it hasn’t prevented potential charges against the DiBiases. [Ed. note: The DiBiases are a family of pro wrestlers accused of participating in the scam.] So there are some people who are on the less sophisticated side of things who are potentially facing charges.
It does not appear that [Favre] personally enjoyed a great deal of benefit, although, of course, [the money] was routed to a pet project of his. So those will be things that prosecutors will have to consider carefully. Could you prove that he acted corruptly and effectively stole funds, even though he’s not sophisticated, and it’s not clear that the money went directly into his pocket?
I wouldn’t hazard a percentage guess. But it’s certainly more than zero.
Favre was questioned by the FBI. What does that tell you?
Because so much money either flowed through him or to other organizations that indirectly benefited him, he would be a natural person that the FBI would want to talk to. I guess the fact that he submitted to an interview indicates that he believes that he might avoid charges. If he knew he was going to be charged and he was told he was a target of an investigation, his lawyer likely would have said, “I’m not bringing him in. He’s going to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.” So he thought that perhaps he could explain his conduct and explain why it wasn’t criminal.
Favre allegedly worked to divert $5 million in TANF money toward building a volleyball stadium at his alma mater. For starters, why is that such a big no-no?
When the federal government grants money, there are always strings attached. TANF is a block grant program, but it is meant to help the poor, to achieve certain objectives, and to support certain permitted expenses. This volleyball stadium is clearly not one of those purposes. It’s not involved in helping the poor. And, second, apparently there’s a prohibition on brick-and-mortar expenditures in connection with the TANF program. So you can’t use this block grant to build a physical building, much less a volleyball stadium. So that’s a big problem. It’s most obviously a problem for those who are charged with administering the program. But also, as a matter of contract or grant law, it’s a problem for any subgrantee. So any money that flowed through to Favre is charged with adhering to the rules of the program. The whole thing was directly contrary to the intent of the program and what the program was supposed to permit.
“These are safety net programs that are meant to shield the poorest of the poor.”
What’s going to determine whether Favre gets charged with a crime for his involvement with the volleyball stadium deal?
The conduct could be charged criminally. To charge someone with a crime, you need to prove a crime was committed—I think it’s pretty clear a crime was committed—and then that the person knowingly participated in that criminal activity. He certainly was in the middle of this transaction. But the question is, did he know that this was an impermissible, unlawful use of federal funds? And I can’t tell yet. I think he knew that it would certainly look bad. Because you already see the texts that say, like, “Is the press gonna find out?” But it’s a little different to say, “I’m worried that the press will find out,” than it is to say, “I’m worried I’m going to get caught.”
I would say the other factor would probably be lack of direct personal benefit. Yes, he wanted the stadium built. His daughter was there. But that’s a little less obvious than having your brother-in-law get half a million dollars for a no-show job, which is what Davis got.
Favre received $1.1 million in “speaking fees” for talks he allegedly never gave, and that money came from the TANF program. Do you think he could get charged with a crime over that?
He’s facing much greater danger from that, because it was a sham contract that he entered into. You can’t get government money to do something, say that you did it, and then not do it. I think we’d be having a slightly different conversation if he actually provided the services. But if he’s knowingly participating in some sort of sham agreement to route money to the volleyball stadium or, potentially, to his personal benefit, then he’s participating in fraud, or a scheme to steal what he knew to be government money.
“If he lied to the FBI, and there are some provable lies there, there’s a very high likelihood he’ll be charged.”
Let’s say, hypothetically, he had gotten a contract to promote people signing up for a particular welfare program, and he got paid $1.1 million to do that, and he did it. You could say that’s highway robbery; that he never should have gotten paid that much. You know, what the heck is Mississippi doing with its welfare money? But he would have provided permissible services.
If, in fact, he didn’t do any of that, and it was literally just a pass-through or a way of benefiting him, then the money was stolen, because no services were provided. And if he knew that this was just a sham agreement to route money—and there’s some indication from what I’ve read that he did—I mean, who could think that that’s proper? Assuming he provided no services and he knew it was fake, he’s at risk for that.
What’s going to determine whether he gets charged with a crime over accepting that $1.1 million?
It’s really important to hear what he has to say. They’re going to take a really hard look at the statement that he gave to the FBI previously. Often what gets people in trouble is they say certain things believing that it’ll never unravel, and people will keep their secrets. And then the truth ends up coming out a couple of years later, and their statements get exposed as lies because people start telling the truth. If that happens, and it turns out he lied to the FBI, and there are some provable lies there, there’s a very high likelihood he’ll be charged.
He could be charged with lying to the FBI. And then beyond that, why would you lie about certain things if you didn’t have a guilty state of mind? You could say, “Well, I have a failure of memory.” But certain basic things—did you know this was welfare money?—if he lied about that, then I would say he’s going to be charged. Not necessarily, but very likely.
Favre was allegedly involved in a deal where TANF money was used to buy stock in a biotech company in which he was a major shareholder. Do you think that that rises to the level of criminal conduct, and what’s going to determine whether he gets charged for that?
It’s definitely criminal conduct. No doubt about that. But the thing is, it looks like the TANF funds that were sent ended up resulting in ownership interest to Nancy New, Jesse New, and Zachary New, [Nancy’s sons]. So it doesn’t look like Favre got additional ownership interest in the company off of this investment.
Did he recruit them? Did he know it was welfare money? Potentially. So could he be a co-conspirator in that scheme? It’s possible. It looks like he did host a stock pitch. And it looks like they knew that this was going to be government money. Did he know that the money was going to result in Nancy New and others personally getting a piece of the company? If he knew that, then he probably could be charged.
Even if it didn’t benefit him personally, if he’s facilitating embezzlement or theft of government funds for the personal benefit of his friend Nancy New, he’s potentially chargeable. And that’s another situation where regardless of your level of sophistication, how could you think that welfare money is properly spent on Nancy New and her kids getting a piece of a biotech company?
If Brett Favre does wind up getting charged, what do you think his defense might look like?
Essentially, that he’s an unsophisticated football player who didn’t obtain a direct personal benefit. He repaid that $1.1 million early on when it was called out, which he could say reflects his dismay and surprise. It’s not a technical defense to the crime, that you repaid the money. But that certainly makes a difference. It might be money out of his pocket because the money ended up going to the stadium. So that’s something [prosecutors] will have to contend with if he does get charged. He’ll say, “I didn’t know it was wrong. When someone told me it was wrong, with respect to the money that was on my contract, I paid it all back immediately, out of my own pocket.”
He might be able to say, “I had no idea that all these people were getting no-show contracts and dirty stuff. I was just trying to achieve a public good, which is an athletic facility for a public university in Mississippi. I happened to know that they needed a volleyball stadium because my daughter goes there. And these people were much more sophisticated than me, including the governor himself, who said, ‘This is the way to do it, and we support you.’ So who am I to say that this is illegal, if the governor himself is saying let’s make it happen?” It’s not a bad defense, potentially—unless he lied to the FBI. And also, if he knew that Nancy New was going to be getting ownership interest [in the biotech company] with public money. That just just doesn’t hold up.
To zoom out a bit: Favre allegedly misappropriated welfare money and put it toward all these purposes that have nothing to do with helping the poor. Why is that so alarming?
These are safety net programs that are meant to shield the poorest of the poor. To have funds going to privileged people, and to people who are entrusted with administering this program, or to programs that have no relation to helping the needy, like a volleyball stadium—it was just a terrible abuse of the program. That’s money that could have been used to help support young children and help them obtain food or shelter, or help someone who doesn’t have skills and cannot find a job get a job so they can support their family. It’s not an incredibly well-funded program. So when you’re talking about $77 million, that can have a huge impact on a lot of people. But because the money was diverted to other purposes, a lot of people who probably should have been helped were not.
Drew Schwartz is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow him on Twitter.