TANF Scandal Keeps Growing in Mississippi
Former NFL quarterback and Mississippi native Brett Favre has been in the headlines in recent months, but not for anything related to his football career. He’s one of three dozen people or companies being sued by the Mississippi Department of Human Services in Mississippi’s largest-ever public corruption case, involving the misspending of tens of millions of dollars in TANF money that was intended to help low-income residents in one of the nation’s poorest states. Favre, who faces no criminal charges, said recently he has been treated unfairly in coverage of the scandal, which has ties to former governor Phil Bryant and revolves around a volleyball arena Favre hoped to build at the University of Southern Mississippi—his alma mater and the college where his daughter was playing the sport. Mississippi nonprofit newsrooms—Mississippi Today and the Mississippi Free Press among them—have led that coverage, and Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe has led the pack. Wolfe spoke to Spotlight about the scandal recently; the transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We’ve tried to summarize for our readers the basic facts of this very complicated case. Why don’t you bring us up to speed on where things are now and what the next shoes are that you are waiting to drop?
The two sort of ongoing processes that we’re working through are the civil suit that the state brought in May against 38 people or companies that received welfare money improperly. And Brett Favre is included as a defendant in that suit as well as some other pro athletes. And the former welfare director, John Davis, and the nonprofit founder Nancy New are the key defendants in the separate but parallel criminal investigation. They’ve already pled guilty to state charges and John Davis has pled guilty to federal charges related to welfare spending, the first federal charges that the Department of Justice has brought against people in this scandal in the entirety of this thing.
And those charges were just against him?
Just against him. The feds have not charged anyone related to the scandal.
Both Davis and New have agreed to aid the prosecution in the state case as part of their plea deal. And so state prosecutors, after the John Davis guilty plea, told the media that they were moving up the ladder. And up the ladder from John Davis is Phil Bryant. That’s our best indication on where their sites are set right now.
So, there’s the civil process and there’s the criminal process. Right now, we’re waiting to see what kind of testimony John Davis is going to be giving. In the civil case, there’s an ongoing battle over whether Phil Bryant is going have to comply with a subpoena that he’s been issued for communication related to the volleyball stadium. That subpoena is happening because Nancy New’s defense is that in some cases she was directed by the governor to make some of these purchases, and she can’t be held to a higher standard than the governor. Within that court battle over the subpoena, text messages have been entered by both parties that have sort of furthered the narrative here and that’s why the story has blown up nationally.(Editor’s note: Bryant was issued a new subpoena after this Q&A took place.)
And thus far, Brett Favre’s involvement is only in the civil suit.
And Favre has a new lawyer who’s one of former President Trump’s former attorneys?
That’s right. And I know that he told one of the outlets that he had reviewed a lot of material and was convinced that Favre had done nothing wrong. And so, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. But I do think that just him hiring this heavy hitting attorney does show how he’s taking it a little more seriously now. I think it’s actually been quite stunning how unserious he’s been throughout this process.
The state auditor came out with a report in 2020 that revealed that Brett Favre had received $1 million personally under a sort of advertising contract to promote the welfare program. He paid back about half of that initially, and then it wasn’t until he was hit with a demand for repayment in October of 2021, that he paid the rest, but he did not pay the interest on the money that the state auditor says he owes. He’s actually being sued for over $3 million by the state right now, which includes $2 million that went to a pharmaceutical startup company that he was investing in and had been working with welfare officials on funneling money to.
What’s his response been? (Editor’s note: In an interview with Fox News after this Q&A took place, Favre said he has been “unjustly smeared” by the media and has done nothing wrong.)
He says that he didn’t know the money came from TANF, which is kind of a funny argument because, did Brett Favre really know what TANF was before this happened? TANF is kind of a niche program. It’s kind of obscure. It’s not like a lot of people are familiar with the phrase TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
What’s your sense of a timeline on the Hinds County investigation and when more charges might be filed?
I think that the state prosecutor—Shad White, the state auditor, was the initial investigating agency—have pretty much turned everything over to the feds. And that charges that we may see in the future likely will be coming from the feds. That’s not to say that Jody Owens, the Hinds County district attorney, is completely out of the picture, it’s a little hard to say, but that’s how I expect it to go.
Let’s zoom out. TANF is a program that even before any of this happened, didn’t work terribly well in Mississippi, which I know you’ve written a lot about. What has this meant for the program since all of this has come out? Has it resulted in any changes? Do you think it’s resulted in changes in public perception of TANF?
Well, I think a lot more people know about it now, that’s for sure. We have changed policies at the Department of Human Services, so that money can’t just fly out the door unchecked anymore. There’s now an official RFP process, for example, a standard bid process, where an actual formal application goes to the department and the department reviews it to see if it’s legit and an effective use of the funds. And that process hadn’t been in place since 2012.
The organizations who are receiving TANF grants now are providing services like parenting classes and workforce training and fatherhood program and after-school programs, these kinds of things. You’re still seeing the bulk of the money that’s being pushed out, pushed out to these sub-grantees. But they’re not these kind of fly-by-night nonprofits anymore. You’re seeing it go to established nonprofits who have already been doing this work. So, that’s a little more comforting.
Still, as you know, a very small percentage of the money is going to cash welfare assistance. I think the last time I checked it is about $4 million out of $86.5 million in federal funds is actually going to cash payments because our caseload of TANF recipients has continued to decline ever since the scandal. That’s the result, I think, of the program just becoming more and more obsolete over time. The welfare check is now $260 a month in Mississippi for a family of three. I think there are misconceptions about what the welfare check actually is. It’s not enough to survive on for sure, but it does make a big difference to families who are trying to make ends meet. And it is a work program; you get the check only if you’re really getting back on your feet.
We are using $30 million in TANF every year to supplement our child protection services. It’s something I’ve written a lot about, but I don’t think that it has really elevated into the national conversation. A lot of states are doing this. This just means that the state is short changing the foster care system and the agency in Mississippi that investigates child abuse and neglect. We are not putting enough state money into it. And so, we have to supplement the budget using $30 million in TANF funds every year. That’s taking a big chunk of the program away from low-income parents and we don’t even know how that money’s being used. (Editor’s note: The state legislature held a hearing Tuesday on this very topic.)
Do you think that the scandal has changed the political calculus around TANF at all? Are there more people in the legislature saying, we need to make major changes?
I think if this story isn’t an argument for welfare reform a national level, l don’t know what is. I think that as the national attention has grown, that potentially we will see more from the legislature. All of those policy changes that I described at the Department of Human Services have been done at the Department of Human Services, not as a result of the legislature passing new laws. We don’t require the Department of Human Services to, for example, provide outcomes to show that the programs that they’re funding is actually achieving the intended results. How many people are leaving poverty? How is this program actually putting a dent in our poverty rate? Where are people going? And that would be something that I think the legislature would take up.
And finally, Anna, what’s this experience been like for you? If not the story of the lifetime, this has to be one of the biggest stories that you and Mississippi Today have covered.
Well, you, you know this because we’ve talked about this before. I reached out to you at the beginning of my time at Mississippi Today because I had pitched this beat to the editor at the time and told him: “Please hire me to be a poverty reporter.” There was not a poverty beat reporter in the state of Mississippi at that time, in 2018. This is what I wanted to write about. And it made the most sense to me to start with social safety net programs. So, I really hit the ground running, trying to look at TANF and what we were doing with this money.
That’s a long way of saying, it’s been a long time coming for this story to get the attention that it’s getting now. I’ve worked really hard over the last several years, dating back really to 2018 and 2019, trying to get the department to be accountable for what it’s doing. And so, it certainly is gratifying to see people paying attention. This story is just really resonating with people.