Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre met resistance when he tried selling the University of Southern Mississippi on a deal to accept federal grant money to build a volleyball stadium, texts show.
“Nancy I spoke with Jon Gilbert this evening and between you and I he is very Leary of accepting such a large grant. Got me very uneasy,” Favre texted Nancy New, owner of the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, which had been granted millions in federal welfare funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
Two days before this, Favre, New, USM Athletic Director Jon Gilbert, MDHS Director John Davis and others had met at the university to discuss the project. Davis, a subordinate of former Gov. Phil Bryant, verbally committed to providing $4 million in welfare funds to build the volleyball stadium.
“He did mention trying to find a way for John (Davis) to allocate money to an entity that could then give to us that would pay for brick and mortar. I passed same info to John and of course he sent back we will find a way to make it work,” Favre wrote.
Federal regulation strictly prohibits states from using funds from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – the fund MDHS Director John Davis had virtually outsourced to MCEC – on exactly the term Favre used, “brick and mortar,” or construction projects. University officials were apparently apprehensive about the maneuvering.
“My fear is he (Gilbert) doesn’t except all that you and John can allocate even if it is legally signed off on,” Favre texted New.
“They are scared to death it seems,” he also texted, referring to USM, according to the court filing.
Eventually, after conversations between the nonprofit officials, attorneys at MDHS and general counsel for the university, Favre got the greenlight. But only after the deal evolved to include an additional half-million for improvements to the basketball stadium Reed Green Coliseum.
New’s attorney Gerry Bufkin argues in a court document filed Friday that the evidence suggests Bryant may have had a hand in pushing the project into the end zone.
At this time in July of 2017, Nancy New had already entered a subgrant with the USM athletic foundation for around $200,000, which would be used to renovate another building on campus called M-Club. As the smaller of Mississippi’s big three universities, USM has historically had a harder time generating funds for these kinds of projects.
“It’s obvious that you and John are tremendous assets for USM and in order for us to get ahead in the game we have to utilize you guys in every way,” Favre texted New.
These new texts, revealed Friday and printed here exactly as they appear without correction, provide a further glimpse into how officials ended up funneling $5 million in welfare funds, money that’s supposed to serve the state’s neediest residents, into the construction of a volleyball stadium at USM. Nancy New’s son Zach New pleaded guilty to defrauding the government related to the expenditure in April.
But in the midst of Favre’s persistence, the project was also reviewed by many – MDHS attorneys, USM attorneys, the Attorney General’s Office, the Institutions of Higher Learning board – who all failed to intervene and stop it.
The new texts came to light within a court battle over whether Bryant should have to comply with a subpoena issued by the attorney for the News and their nonprofit. Another defendant, Austin Smith, also joined the subpoena.
The attorneys are bringing the subpoena against Bryant in an ongoing civil suit over welfare misspending, even though Bryant is not a defendant in the litigation, because they say Bryant’s involvement in welfare spending, and particularly the volleyball project, is crucial to their clients’ defense. Bryant argues in his objection to the subpoena that he did nothing wrong, and shouldn’t have to release privileged communication as a result of the defense attorney’s fishing expedition.
“Governor Bryant makes one thing abundantly clear: he is desperate to avoid public scrutiny of his text messages concerning welfare funds used to build the Volleyball Facility at USM,” New’s attorney Gerry Bufkin wrote Friday. “Of course, Bryant insists he did nothing to facilitate the flow of millions from MDHS to the athletic construction project, but he refuses to produce his text messages and other documents that presumably would support his contentions, if true. In lieu of transparency, Bryant opts for obfuscation.”
Mississippi Today compiled the following timeline based on documents and communication gathered in the court process or retrieved through records requests. Read the timeline here.
This story has been edited for length. Read the full story here.
Editor’s note: Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau’s mother signed off on the language of a lease agreement to construct a University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium. Read more about that here.