September 30, 2022

Brett Favre’s Most Memorable Stat May Be $8 Million Meant for the Poor

His role in the misappropriation of welfare money has infuriated people in his native Mississippi and prompted some fans to call for his removal from the Hall of Fame.

The website for Brett Favre’s foundation, Favre 4 Hope, describes a mission of the charitable organization that the Hall of Fame quarterback founded in 1995: providing financial aid to groups “that provide services to underserved and disabled children in Mississippi and Wisconsin.”

This stated aim stands in contrast to what Favre has been accused of in his home state: playing a role in the misappropriation of about $8 million in public funds intended for welfare recipients. The state of Mississippi sued 38 people or organizations, including Favre, earlier this year to recoup money it said was fraudulently diverted from a federal antipoverty program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Favre has not been charged with a crime. But the evidence that links him to this scandal has further compromised the standing earned with his football success across a 20-year N.F.L. career, particularly in the state where he has been a favorite son. Text messages released in a court filing earlier this month showed Favre leveraging that status to secure funds for personal pet projects: a biotechnology start-up in which he had invested and a volleyball facility at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter played the sport. The texts were first reported on by Mississippi Today.

Favre’s lawyer, Bud Holmes, did not respond to messages seeking comment. He and Favre have said that Favre was not aware that the funds came from a federal welfare program. Two of the people Favre was in touch with have pleaded guilty to fraud charges related to the welfare money: John Davis, who served as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services under Phil Bryant, the state’s former governor, and Nancy New, who led a community education nonprofit that misappropriated funds to Favre and other prominent figures.

As for Favre’s contention that he didn’t realize the source of the funds, it’s not uncommon for individuals to secure grants without knowing exactly where the money is coming from, said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sport philanthropy at George Washington University. But, she added: “You probably should have started getting suspicious if they can fund everything from a volleyball stadium to a biotech company. I don’t know what kind of fund he thought this was.”

Court filings describe Favre pushing local leaders, including Davis and New, to fund the construction of the multimillion-dollar volleyball facility at Southern Miss. New’s nonprofit directed $5 million to the school for the project, according to public records, disguised as a lease to get around restrictions on how welfare funds are used. Favre and New also came up with a plan for Favre to receive $1.1 million from the nonprofit, supposedly for promotional appearances, that he would also funnel to the volleyball facility, their text messages show. (A state auditor previously demanded that Favre repay this amount; he still owes the interest.) “If you were to pay me,” Favre texted to New as they discussed this idea in 2017, “is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?”

Text messages between Favre and Bryant, made public by Bryant’s attorney in a court filing late last week, show Favre unsuccessfully pushing for more public funding for Southern Miss athletic facilities in late 2019, even after the then-governor cautioned him that misuse of the welfare grants New had access to could be illegal. In addition to the volleyball facility — toward which Favre said he personally owed money — one message shows Favre lobbying for the construction of an indoor football facility to help recruit Deion Sanders’s son, Shedeur Sanders, a top quarterback, to Southern Miss.

Favre also worked to secure $2.1 million through New’s nonprofit for the biotech start-up, which purports to be developing a drug to treat concussions. This investment also came from public funds for the welfare program and, the state’s lawsuit said, was for the “financial benefit” of Favre and others.

It’s not yet known if Favre will face legal consequences for his role in the misuse of these public funds. But his connection to it has resulted in significant public scrutiny — a kind of scrutiny that Favre has faced before. More than a decade ago, a game-day host for the Jets, Jenn Sterger, accused Favre of sending her lewd and harassing messages while he was a quarterback for the team. (The N.F.L. said it could not establish that Favre sent the photographs to Sterger but fined him $50,000 for failing to cooperate with the investigation.)

Sage Rosenfels, a former N.F.L. quarterback and Favre’s teammate on the Minnesota Vikings, called him out in a Twitter post, writing, “Since retirement, I have been lucky to avoid stealing millions of dollars from the poorest people in my state.” Rich Desrosiers, the chief communications officer for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said he has fielded about a dozen phone calls from fans about Favre, all asking for him to be removed from the Hall, into which he was inducted in 2016. “There’s no question this has outraged a number of fans,” he said.

Desrosiers said he has told each caller that Favre has not yet been charged with any crime, and that the Hall of Fame bylaws, as they are currently written, don’t allow for the removal of someone once they have been elected. No one has ever been removed, including George Preston Marshall, the demonstrably racist former owner of Washington’s N.F.L. team; O.J. Simpson, who was found responsible in civil court for the murders of his former wife and her friend; and Lawrence Taylor, who in 2011 pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor sex offenses after soliciting an underage girl.

Regardless of what happens to Favre in the formal settings that chronicle his football achievements, there is a number that is perhaps more striking than his streak of 321 consecutive starts: the $8 million meant for poor people that he is accused by the state of pushing to his personal interests, despite having earned more than $140 million in his N.F.L. playing career.

That he did so while running a foundation that, in part, pledged to aid underserved Mississippians seems too cynical to be true. One of the organizations listed as a charity partner of Favre 4 Hope is Hope Haven, which serves children in Mississippi who are victims of sexual abuse and trauma. Hope Haven’s executive director, John James, said the center usually receives a $10,000 donation from Favre’s foundation late in the year. He said he hopes the donations keep coming despite the recent headlines because the funding helps Hope Haven meet the needs of its community.

For smaller organizations especially, $10,000 can go a long way. That puts into scale the extent of the fraud to which Favre has been linked — and how he has chosen to use his power and influence in his home state.

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