by Anna Wolfe, Mississippi Today

Brett Favre, a Hancock County Mississippi native and former NFL star had an economic development idea for his home state.  All too familiar with the devastating, lasting effects of sports-related head injuries, Favre was an investor and spokesman for a company that conducts research and develops pharmaceutical treatments for concussions, according to news reports.

Favre hoped the Florida-based company, Prevacus, would locate and manufacture its drug in Mississippi, which produces some of the best athletes in the country.

He turned to then-Gov. Phil Bryant.

Recruiting businesses to the state is typically the work of the Mississippi Development Authority. In this case, officials at the Mississippi Department of Human Services, which administers large federal welfare grants, took a meeting at the request of Favre and Bryant to discuss concussion research, according to a calendar invitation Mississippi Today obtained through a public records request.

It’s not clear why the human services department became the point of the contact for the meeting, set by John Davis, the agency’s director at the time, for Jan. 2, 2019 at the office of state contractor Nancy New.

Bryant told Mississippi Today he did not attend the meeting and did not recommend Human Services be involved in the concussion research venture.

“Every time someone presented an idea for partnership with state government, often to the frustration of the presenter, I directed them to the appropriate agency for review and disposition by subject-matter experts,” Bryant said in a written statement to Mississippi Today.

The January meeting did not result in Prevacus’ relocation to Mississippi, but did come weeks before state investigators say Davis, Nancy New and her son Zach New allegedly took $2.15 million in welfare dollars to make personal investments in Prevacus and its affiliate PreSolMD, according to a State Auditor release.

The alleged fraud occurred just after the meeting between Jan. 18 and Oct. 7, 2019, according to court documents.

The calendar invite provides new insight into the timeline of events that led to Hinds County grand jury indictments against the News and Davis in connection to what State Auditor Shad White called a “sprawling conspiracy”; they’ve pleaded not guilty.

The sprawling nature of the case, for which White credits Bryant as the whistleblower, extends to other ventures owned or controlled by the News and programs that Davis supervised at the human services department.

Separately, Favre had also been seeking support for the construction of a volleyball center at University of Southern Mississippi, the majority of which was also funded by Nancy New’s organization, Mississippi Community Education Center, Mississippi Today reported last week.

Davis told his colleague in the January 2019 email that Favre and Bryant requested the meeting to discuss both projects.

Auditor White said he was aware of such a meeting between Bryant and Favre but would not comment further because the investigation is ongoing.

Favre and his agent, Bus Cook, who also sat on Prevacus’ advisory board, did not return several calls to Mississippi Today over the last three weeks.

“(T)his is about economic development plain and simple!!!” Favre sent in a text to a Mississippi Today reporter Monday. “My hope was/is to see the concussion drug manufactured in the state of Mississippi!!!”

Asked about his conversations with Davis, Favre texted, “I met John through our Southern miss connections years ago and my conversations with John were about the same thing Governor Bryant and I discussed. That is economic development.”

Watchdogs of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, known as welfare, have long warned that its lack of oversight allows states to use it as a slush fund for pet projects.

“There is probably no other program where there’s as much money as TANF with as few controls as it has,” said LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for Family Income Support Policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

For years, as the state agency served fewer and fewer people through the welfare program, it failed to spend all of the grant funds it received from the federal government. By 2016, the state had $47 million in unused welfare dollars sitting in its coffer.

“It’s not only that there are funds available,” Pavetti said, “there are also funds available with very little accountability that could make people feel like they could get away with it.”

The abrupt growth of Nancy New’s nonprofit — in both government influence and physical offices — started in 2017 after the welfare agency started awarding the group TANF contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.

Nancy New had become increasingly involved in several areas of state government, from the school choice movement to the state’s foster care system and the new child care center training system to crafting a comprehensive plan for the entire welfare agency.

Former First Lady Deborah Bryant often attended events celebrating Nancy New’s efforts and spoke at one of the nonprofit’s most recent ribbon cuttings for its new State Street Center in downtown Jackson last September, while the investigation into the welfare program was ongoing.

New was a frequent on conservative-talk radio station SuperTalk; she visited with Favre and Davis at the station in 2018, a Facebook post shows.

In 2017, the same month it received its first multi-million dollar welfare contract from Human Services, New’s nonprofit paid University of Southern Mississippi’s athletic foundation $5 million so it could build a new volleyball stadium, called the Wellness Center.

Through the agreement, the nonprofit rented all University athletic facilities to house “activities that benefit the area’s underserved population,” though those programs never materialized, Mississippi Today first reported Feb. 26.

Nancy New sat on the foundation’s board and another athletic foundation board member sat on the of board of New’s nonprofit.

Records show the nonprofit’s agreement with the athletic foundation resulted in the University hosting exactly one event: a Healthy Teens rally at the coliseum in October of 2018.

Mississippi Community Education Center explained in a statement to Mississippi Today that the new Wellness Center only recently opened, so it hadn’t had a chance to conduct programming there. “The services contemplated by this project are vast and will serve students, individuals and families in south Mississippi. MCEC has every intention of moving forward in providing the services and programs intended by this agreement should MCEC have the funding to do so.”

A representative, Cassandra Williams, said the nonprofit is still in operation with 25 employees, though it has closed its main Jackson office as well as its office in Hattiesburg. “We are still working through which specific services we can provide with the staff that  we currently have,” Williams said by email.

The nonprofit says that the state agency, including Jacob Black, who served as interim director until this week, was involved in the Southern agreement from the beginning, while the spokesperson for the department of human services, Danny Blanton, said no one who works at the agency today “has any idea” about a volleyball center.

Blanton said Monday agency representatives offered advice to the nonprofit and university “on how the lease would need to be structured to stay within federal guidelines,” but “no one currently with the agency ever saw a copy of the final $5 million lease.”

States have broad authority to spend the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal block grant, known as welfare, to meet one of four objectives: provide cash assistance to poor families, promote employment, prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage two-parent families. TANF regulations state the dollars may not be spent on medical care or to construct new buildings.

In December of 2018, about six months into the Wellness Center’s construction, Davis scheduled a meeting at University of Southern Mississippi with Nancy New and another contractor with the department, Ted DiBiase Jr. In addition to money from New’s nonprofit, the university has also received about $840,000 in 2018 TANF subgrants from the department, according to public records Mississippi Today obtained.

“USM Wants to show their appreciation to Mr. Davis and Ted,” the email reads. The email included the misspelled name of the university’s former athletic director Jon Gilbert in the subject line. Gilbert told Mississippi Today by email he was not aware of the meeting nor did he attend it.

That month, Bryant gave Nancy New the Mississippi Meritorious Civilian Service Award, the second highest honor the governor grants.  Shortly after on New Year’s Day in 2019, Davis sent another calendar invite to DiBiase, an ex-professional wrestler and motivational speaker the nonprofit was paying to conduct workplace training for state employees.

Human Services awarded more than $2 million in welfare grants directly to the charity founded by DiBiase’s father, also Ted, the professional wrestler known as the “Million Dollar Man”-turned Christian minister, Clarion Ledger first reported.

Another son, Brett DiBiase, was indicted within the scheme. Davis allegedly funneled taxpayer dollars to pay for Brett DiBiase’s substance abuse treatment at a Malibu facility, according to the indictments against them.

Davis’ calendar shows he included Ted DiBiase Jr. on a wide range of activities — broad planning meetings for the department, other government agency meetings, radio spots, tours of nonprofits, out-of-state conferences and even several gym sessions.

In June of 2019, Human Services employees took information about potential fraud to Bryant, who relayed the information to State Auditor Shad White. Davis abruptly announced his retirement shortly after that in early July. Bryant appointed a former FBI agent to replace Davis.

“I demanded the highest level of honesty and integrity for my staff and cabinet members, and when there was ever a reason to question whether those standards were being met, I took immediate action,” Bryant said in his statement to Mississippi Today.

Davis often operated out of the view of other agency officials, Blanton said, and the department has since enacted policies to prevent the director from unilaterally doling out welfare dollars.

Gov. Tate Reeves announced Wednesday his appointment of Bob Anderson, a former federal prosecutor and most recently the director of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit in the State Attorney General’s office, to lead Human Services.

Nancy New, Ted Dibiase Jr. and Sr. and Prevacus owner Jake Vanlandingham did not return several calls or emails to Mississippi Today for this story. Zach New’s attorney Franklin Rosenblatt, Davis’ attorney Merrida Coxwell and Brett DiBiase’s attorney John Colette have declined to comment.