Home U.S.Education In Mississippi, Welfare for the Well Connected as a Scandal Spreads

In Mississippi, Welfare for the Well Connected as a Scandal Spreads

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As he becomes more involved in a scheme to divert federal welfare funds to build a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi that will cost more than $5 million, former football star Brett Favre is donating to a nonprofit. I texted a question to the head of the organization. The funds were intended to go to welfare recipients in the poorest states in the country.

“If you pay me,” he wrote in 2017, of a $1.1 million promotional effort proposal that would actually go into building the stadium. Years-long text about the project His message came to light when it was filed in court last week. First published in Mississippi His Today. Mississippi Today is a small non-profit news site that has been a consistent leader in reporting this news.

Much more than that payment is exposed in the high-profile scandal that extends far beyond Mr. Fabre. Various political appointees, former football stars, former professional wrestlers, businessmen, and various friends of the state’s former Republican governor all pocketed or abused the money allotted to their families in need. He has been accused of harassment.

On Thursday, John Davis, who served as executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services under former Gov. Phil Bryant, pleaded guilty to both federal and state charges of embezzling federal welfare funds. According to court documents, millions of dollars were transferred to his friends and relatives.

According to a lawsuit filed by the state in May, about $5 million was left for the flamboyant retired wrestler Ted DiBiase, formerly known as “The Million Dollar Man”, his two sons, and various misdemeanors associated with them. been used by groups. Ministry. Much of the money was spent on fictitious services, fake jobs, top-notch travel arrangements, and even one son’s stay at a luxury rehab center in Malibu, California, costing $160,000, the lawsuit claims. doing.

Similarly, the state said that Marcus Dupree, a former high school football prodigy and professional running back, who was paid to act as a celebrity advocate and motivational speaker, had to buy and live in It claims that it did not perform contractual services on the $371,000 received. Spacious residence with swimming pool and adjoining horse pasture in a gated community.

Favre, who earned more than $140 million in his Hall of Fame career, was paid $1.1 million for a speech he never gave, the complaint said. According to the lawsuit, he also coordinated more than $2 million in government funding directed at biotech start-ups in which he invested.

None of the three have been charged with any crime and all have denied wrongdoing. But even Mississippi’s most cynical observers are stunned by the impudence of the activism in the allegations and how deeply it reflects the inequalities baked into the history of the state with the highest poverty rate in the country.

Democrat Rep. Benny Thompson said, “Poor profiteering is underway. He said, ‘It’s like Robin Hood in reverse. You take from the poor and give to the rich.'”

Allegations of fraudulent grants were uncovered in a lawsuit filed in May against 38 individuals and organizations seeking repayment of more than $24 million. A federal welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Families in Need (TANF) appeared to be a slush fund for pet projects and personal gains rather than helping the needy. .

The state argues that money was often siphoned off for services that were not provided and in any event failed to meet both federal and state regulations governing their distribution. Following a state audit released in May 2020, it suggests as much as $94 million in TANF funding may have been lost.

In February 2020, six people were arrested on charges of misusing public funds in what state auditor Shad White described as one of the largest public corruption cases in Mississippi history. Most of them plead guilty. Hines County District Attorney Jodie E. Owens II said a joint investigation by federal and state investigators could result in more people being charged.

Attorneys for Mr. DiBiase and Mr. Dupree Sr. did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. DiBiase and his Heart of David Ministries attorney, Michael T. Dawkins, said in court documents that his client said to have acted

After the indictment was first revealed, Dupree’s attorney, J. Matthew Eichelberger, released a letter saying his client had made the money.

Ferb’s attorney, Bud Holmes, did not respond to a request for comment. He and Favre have repeatedly said the football legend had no idea the money was coming from a federal welfare program.

According to Aditi Shrivastava, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, Mississippi ranks 47th among U.S. states when it comes to basic assistance. According to figures compiled by the center, the median maximum monthly benefit in July 2021 will be $498 per month in July 2021, compared to $260 in Mississippi, with most people being paid. not.

Experts say the scam stems from changes enacted in such programs in 1996, when cash benefits paid to poor families were replaced with block grants issued to states. They are supposed to allocate money according to four federal guidelines that emphasize moving poor families into stable employment, but in practice, states and governors are given wide discretion.

Ironically, the Mississippi Legislature also added a fifth guideline, “To prevent fraud and abuse.” Although it was aimed at recipients of the aid, the state now claims that the perpetrators were found to include public officials running the program.

Nancy New and her son Zach New, who run a nonprofit educational organization called the Mississippi Community Education Center, pleaded guilty last spring to misusing TANF funds.

Text messages revealed in court documents show former Governor Bryant working with Ms. New to help Ferb get federal funding for a state-of-the-art volleyball facility to be built by Bryant and New. He suggested that he helped. At Ferb’s alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, Ferb’s daughter played sports.

“Can you help me with his project?” Bryant said in an email to New in July 2019, noting that he had just spoken to Ferb.

In 2020, a state audit report said the university received $5 million in a bogus lease to use all its athletic facilities (including a volleyball center, yet to be built) for programs for the poor. That’s what I mean.

The money paid by the Mississippi Department of Human Services through the news nonprofit actually went toward construction costs, the audit said. Last April, New pleaded guilty to transferring $4 million to the university from his TANF funds, which the federal government has banned from being used for “brick and mortar” projects.

As texts released last week show that the $1.1 million benefits contract to promote the center’s program — a job that never ran — is another way to divert money to stadiums. I saw.

In August 2017, New said in a text message about Favre hiding the facility’s funding sources that he understood his “anxiety” but assured that such information would never be made public. . The next day she wrote: He’s riding with us! we will get this done!

Bryant’s attorney, William M. Quinn II, said the text messages did not support claims that the governor encouraged and coached Ferb and state officials on how to obtain the grant. “The allegations are plainly false,” he said in an emailed statement, dismissing the text messages as “chosen.” Bryant has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The volleyball stadium was not actually part of the lawsuit. Last July, J. Brad Pigott, a former U.S. attorney hired by state governments to recover millions of dollars in losses, subpoenaed information about what happened at the university. I was fired after I started. Ferb has paid back his $1.1 million to the state, but state auditors still say he owes $228,000 in interest.

Organizations that help the poor have long worried that bloc subsidies given by governors could act as incentives for abuse.

“That money was in danger of being slushed long before this catastrophe,” she said.

In Mississippi, the fact that Republican governors and legislators have in recent years been ideologically opposed to government programs aimed at helping the poor exacerbate the problem, she and others said. said. “They probably thought it was crazy to spend money they were supposed to spend — in their heart — on people who didn’t deserve it,” she said of the accused officials.

Mississippi Rep. Thompson said he was one of 12 states that have refused to expand Medicaid and routinely deny federal funding to improve things like health care, housing and childcare. As of the end of 2020, he had $47 million in unused TANF funds in Mississippi, according to Srivastava.

A faculty member at the University of Southern Mississippi says the school is proud to host first-generation students like the family the funds were intended to support. Hmm,” Dennis Wiesenberg, president of the undergraduate Senate and professor of marine sciences, said of the recent unwanted attention. “We recognize that it has damaged the university’s reputation.”

The scandal has permeated over the years, largely due to relentless coverage by Mississippi Today. But that does not dull the anger of those most affected.

Carol Burnett, executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Low-Income Children’s Care Initiative, reveals tens of millions of dollars that would have been spent on initiatives such as improving public transportation and childcare for the working poor. He said people were appalled to be handed over to Instead, go out to a wealthy political buddy. “They see this money meant to help people like them being so misused and redirected to people who don’t need help,” she said. It’s annoying.”

Jenny Brentus contributed to the report.

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