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Brett Favre And The Thin Line Between “Making Plays” And “Massive Fraud”

Brett Favre seated on a toilet next to Matt Hasselbeck as part of something called "All-Stars Drop By Poo-Pourri"
Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for Poo-Pourri

It was generally to his credit, and essential to his appeal, that Brett Favre played football like someone who might eventually wind up implicated in some kind of sprawling fraud. This had less to do with any latent thread of malice in him than it did with a sort of profound and even heroic incapacity for forethought, though that the latter opens the door for the former does tend to diminish the charm a bit. As a football player, Favre gave a lot and took away a bit less, but he was sufficiently charismatic to be graded on a curve that accounted for his inherent heedlessness; he was great enough that how and who he was came to qualify the moments in which he fell short for increasingly predictable reasons, in increasingly predictable ways.

Favre's mythos is only helped by the fact that so few people in any line of work get this kind of dispensation. The American Dream has always, at its heart, been about not just being able to do whatever you want to do, but about being able to get away with it. It's a lot more fun to imagine the liberation of living that way than it is to live in the wreckage that sort of behavior reliably leaves behind. When a critical mass of neighbors and bosses and leaders are operating like that, you are not and will never be safe, primarily because you will never be taken into consideration at all. All that manic playmaking and Having Fun Out There is done not just in defiance but denial of the very existence of consequences. And so everyone who is not the prime mover—the person making plays—is a potential enemy, or opponent, or just someone who might notice that they are being harmed and then get mad about that. For those who see themselves as the protagonists of reality, the thing is to take your shots downfield, because that is where the points are, but also to insist upon being absolved of any accountability once the ball leaves your hand. You were simply trying to make things happen, as winners do; it would be unfair, it would be un-American, to be held accountable when, as a consequence, those things actually happen. If this is a reckless way to play quarterback, it is a much worse way to do anything more consequential or important than that.

If there is a defense to be made for any of the many people implicated in a massive case of public fraud in Mississippi, it is that none of them really seemed to think very long or hard about what they were doing. This cast of characters—which includes Favre and former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, as well as two generations of pro wrestling's DiBiase family, the former Mississippi State linebacker Paul Lacoste, and former Mississippi high school football prodigy and college football cautionary tale Marcus Dupree, along with the usual assortment of creepy local fixers and real estate developers and quackish all-purpose grifters—took tens of millions of dollars in federal funds that were supposed to be spent on the state's neediest citizens and spent them in all the prosaic and useless ways that such people tend to spend stolen money: on mortgage and car payments, on luxury vacations and luxury rehab stints, and on the churches and fitness boot camps that these local heroes owned. In Favre's case, that money became both an investment in a scammy biomedical startup and the funds behind his donation towards a new facility for the women's volleyball team at Southern Miss, on which his daughter Breleigh played.

This was all made possible through serial and systemic corruption in the state's Department of Human Services and facilitated by the creation of a vast and inverted infrastructure of nonprofit institutions that worked tirelessly, for years, to make sure that money did not reach the people it was intended to help, and instead disappeared into the pockets and projects of various well-heeled and well-connected parties. Those parties did all this as oafishly and overtly and lazily as possible—that is, in ways that suggested they did not believe they could possibly get caught, or that it would matter if they did. So far, they've been right.

"The funds that were illegally obtained in this case were intended to help the poorest among us," Mississippi state auditor Shad White said back in 2020. "The funds were instead taken by a group of influential people for their own benefit, and the scheme is massive. It ends today." This was all true except for the very last bit; the various shady nonprofits that existed to turn money intended for needy Mississippians into cheesy political baksheesh continued to receive funds from the state's DHS through their federal block grant "even after the agency was made aware of serious fraud allegations," the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported in 2021. By then, the estimate of how much federal funding had been misused was approaching $100 million. The state's former head of DHS, as well as the mother-and-son team behind a state-sanctioned nonprofit agency that existed to redirect that money, were indicted for embezzlement.

"While the federal government requires states to provide documentation about the families that receive cash assistance—such as the number of families that meet work requirements—it does not require states to report what it buys with the rest of the money, only how much it used on vague categories," Anna Wolfe wrote in the Mississippi Today in May of 2020; Wolfe and Mississippi Today have led the way on this story for years. In 2018, Wolfe reported, the state spent just five percent of the $135 million it received on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits, devoting "most of the rest on programming categorized as education and training, supportive services, child welfare and 'Fatherhood and Two Parent Family Formation,' on which it spent about $40 million."

Federal funds flowed through the state's DHS and into state-sanctioned nonprofit organizations like the Mississippi Community Education Center and Families First For Mississippi, both run by a former private education contractor named Nancy New and her son Zachary. Those sub-grantees notionally existed to get people off TANF, but in a more practical sense existed to redirect that benefit money to people like Favre, and Dupree, and Lacoste, and Teds DiBiase Sr. and Jr.

It was through these nonprofits with extremely inaccurate names that Marcus Dupree came to receive a six-figure salary for the occasional motivational speaking engagement and some Facebook posts with the hashtag #fatherhood on them. It was also how Brett Favre was able to secure millions of dollars towards his ambitions as a biomedical startup investor and big-ticket college volleyball booster. Everyone with something to gain from this understood that this was how it worked; the people in Hattiesburg, who watched the funds they had been told they were not qualified to receive build that volleyball facility on Southern Miss campus, understood it, too. All of it was business as usual.

In 1996, when Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law, 33,000 adults in Mississippi received federal assistance. Within a decade, that number was 8,500. In 2017, the Mississippi Department of Human Services accepted just 1.42 percent of welfare applications, the lowest figure in the nation. That year, 11,700 families applied for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families funds and 167 were approved. In 2018, fewer than four percent of Mississippi children living in poverty received any TANF benefits. Wolfe told the former Mississippi congressman Ronnie Shows that just 208 adults in the state received TANF in 2021; benefits for a family of three are currently capped at $260 per month. Given the volume of federal funding that sluiced through the state's Department of Human Services, and given that the department and the broader state apparatus was determined not to give that money to anyone who needed it, it is difficult to imagine any kind of non-corrupt outcome.

When Favre asked then-Gov. Bryant for help connecting him to this money, Bryant put him in touch with Nancy New. In the texts that the two exchanged, which Mississippi Today published on Monday, Favre and Bryant communicate in a series of poignantly mixed football metaphors. “It’s 3rd and long and we need you to make it happen!!” Favre texted the governor in 2018, when he sought federal funds for his partner's specious concussion cure. Favre, as ever, was thinking of the big play; Bryant, who has denied knowing that TANF funds went towards Favre's investment in the defunct biomedical company Prevacus, responds in the language of run-blocking: "I will open a hole." In the context of this kind of corruption, for those who understood it best, this was not a bold downfield strike but just another plunge off-tackle.

It is hard to know what to do with this. Turning all these institutions against their ostensible missions—making the Department of Human Services into something so flagrantly anti-human and anti-service—aligned with both a reflexively punitive political ideology and an impulse towards retributive governmental sadism. But that cruelty was not so much the point as a political calculation that unlocked every other instance of self-dealing plunder. The help was never going to be permitted to reach the people that needed it. Once that was set, it was just a matter of taking what was there to take, in the understanding that there would be no consequences for doing so.

Consequences, qualifications, justification—those were for other people, the less-deserving and leverage-less, who would simply have to try to navigate a wilderness of rules that had been built specifically to exclude them. The various narrowing hoops through which the intended recipients of those funds had to pass in order to get their monthly pittance were part of what the politicians in charge sold to their voters; this was called accountability. And if no poor family was deserving of those $260 per month, then the people in charge would simply use it in ways that would benefit the greater good, for instance by letting Brett Favre shore up his Girldad credentials.

We know, now that Mississippi Today has published the texts, how the parties involved talked about rewarding those who helped them. "Now that you’re unemployed I’d like to give you a company package for all your help," Favre's partner in Prevacus texted Bryant when his term in office ended. ("Sounds good," Bryant responded.) After the since-indicted DHS chief and Nancy New helped secure funds for Prevacus, Favre suggested "we need to buy her and ... surprise him with a vehicle I thought maybe ... we could get him a [Ford F-150] raptor." That all fits.

To be fair to Favre, who has returned $500,000 of the $1.1 million he was paid to do ... whatever it was he was paid to do, it is hard to know what earning that money would have involved. Even someone who made his fortune trying to thread slim and rapidly closing windows of opportunity might have struggled to encourage people in need to endure multiple futile months of humiliation and ornate administrative pranks. What could a rich man who lives so giddily outside of any accountability, and who is actively growing richer by dint of his state's perversion of that very concept, tell people absorbing one cruel consequence after another on behalf of a system built to make sure this never stops happening to them? What is there to say, really, beyond "good luck"?

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