Brett Favre remains a hometown hero. But lately he's become a bit of an everywhere-else villain.
In May 2020, the retired NFL star agreed to return $1.1 million in speaking fees from an education nonprofit that paid him using federal welfare funds earmarked to help Mississippi's neediest residents. In a tweeted statement he said he had no idea who was footing the bill for those speeches and, once he found out where the money came from, he promptly gave it back.
"I have spent my entire career helping children through Favre 4 Hope donating nearly $10 million to underserved and underprivileged children in Mississippi and Wisconsin," he noted. "It has brought a ton of joy to my life, and I would certainly never do anything to take away from the children I have fought to help! I love Mississippi and I would never knowingly do anything to take away from those that need it most."
Mississippi State Auditor Shad White—whose 2020 audit report noted that his office had determined Favre "did not speak nor was he present for those events" in question—stated at the time that he applauded Favre "for his good faith effort to make this right and make the taxpayers and [the families who needed the state funds] whole."
Now, however, Favre is one of 38 people and organizations named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in May by the Mississippi Department of Human Services over $24 million in misspent welfare funds. The suit is seeking to recoup $3.2 million from Favre and Favre Enterprises, per court documents posted by Yahoo! Sports. (According to NBC News, White says that Favre also still owes the state $228,000 in interest for the speech money.)
He has not been charged with any crimes. But details of the 53-year-old's alleged involvement in what White called the state's biggest public fraud case in decades have continued to pile up.
In a statement to E! News, Favre said that he'd been "unjustly smeared" by the reports linking him to the scandal and maintained that he has "done nothing wrong."
But what, exactly, is he accused of doing again?
What's the deal with Brett Favre?
For the last two decades, Favre headlines have been all over the map.
The Green Bay Packers' superstar quarterback met his future wife Deanna during his playing days at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, and they became parents to daughter Brittany in 1989 before marrying in July 1996.
Their second child, Breleigh, was born in 1999. Brittany welcomed son Parker Brett in April 2010, making Favre the only known grandfather among the players on an NFL team at the time, though he retired in the off-season.
He and Deanna led a relatively private family life during the earlier days of his playing career, but her 2004 breast cancer diagnosis made her more of a public figure—reluctantly at first, but less so as she realized she could use her platform to raise awareness.
Declared cancer-free after chemo and radiation, she credited her husband and their Catholic faith for helping her make it through the toughest moments.
"All the stuff we've been through over the years has molded us into two different people," she told Green Bay publication The Compass in 2007. "It's awesome to think where we started and where we are now. Our relationship has gotten to a much stronger point, a deeper love; we have so much respect and love for each other."
After 15 years with the Packers, Favre was traded to the New York Jets in 2008, where he spent one season before joining the Minnesota Vikings. In 2010, the NFL opened an investigation into allegations he left inappropriate voicemails and sent sexually explicit text messages (including lewd pictures) to Jenn Sterger, then a "Gameday Host" for the Jets, during his year with the team.
Favre stayed notably silent on the subject, telling reporters when asked about the allegations before a Vikings-Jets game, "I'm not getting into that. I've got my hands full with the Jets."
Ultimately the NFL was unable to confirm it was Favre's voice (or any other part of him) that had landed in Sterger's inbox, so he was not found to be in violation of league protocol regarding conduct in the workplace. He was fined $50,000, however, for not cooperating with the investigation.
Days after the fine was announced, Favre was sued by two massage therapists who alleged, per court documents reviewed by the Associated Press, that during the 2008 pre-season he sent a third therapist racy text messages (one of which allegedly suggested a get-together with one of the plaintiffs, Christine Scavo) and they lost part-time gigs working for the Jets after Scavo's husband asked Favre to apologize.
Favre, who retired from the NFL in 2010 after 19 seasons, denied the claims. The Jets maintained in court filings, per the AP, that the plaintiffs had worked with the team for a total of five days over the course of two years, and the hiring of other massage therapists had nothing to do with anything those two said about Favre.
The suit was settled in 2013, the plaintiffs' attorney telling the Associated Press the matter had been "resolved and discontinued."
But all was so much water under the bridge for fans of the Packers' Super Bowl-winning quarterback, a three-time league MVP and hero to Cheeseheads everywhere, who was duly inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
Deanna introduced him as they unveiled his bust in Canton.
What was the Brett Favre speech scandal in Mississippi?
As Favre said, he repaid the $1.1 million he received for speaking engagements that he reportedly didn't attend.
But his name turned up in the course of a wider investigation into misused welfare funds. In 2020, per NBC News, state auditor Shad White announced his office had uncovered $77 million in misspent welfare funds. The state subsequently filed a civil suit against 38 defendants to recover the money.
Regarding payments to Favre that were categorized in his report as "questioned," White said that auditors "either saw clear misspending or could not verify the money had been lawfully spent."
According to the audit report, Favre Enterprises was paid by the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center, which had contracted with Mississippi Department of Human Services—which is supposed to dole out funds to the state's neediest people—to receive money through the department's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Nancy New, the former director of the Community Education Center, pleaded guilty in April to four counts of bribing a public official, two counts of fraud against the government, six counts of wire fraud and a count of racketeering—charges that all together come with a possible 99-year prison sentence, per court documents posted by Mississippi Today. She has agreed to cooperate with investigators as part of her plea deal, as has her son Zach New.
Zach, who served as vice president of his mother's non-profit, pleaded guilty to the same charges, minus the racketeering and one count of wire fraud.
John Davis, the former executive director of the MDHS before he was ousted in June 2019, was sentenced to 32 years in prison last month after pleading guilty to five counts of conspiracy and 13 counts of fraud against the government for his role in distributing money to projects and programs that had no business getting welfare funds.
Asked by the judge at sentencing why he had committed such crimes, Davis replied, per Mississippi's WAPT, "Very, very bad judgment, and I shouldn't have done it."
One of the projects that's been under scrutiny since its inception, according to court filings, is the construction of the University of Southern Mississippi's new state-of-the-art Wellness Center used by the university's girls' volleyball team. Out of the reported $7 million cost, $5 million allegedly came from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
What does Brett Favre have to do with girls' volleyball at Southern Miss?
Favre's daughter Breleigh, now 23, played indoor and beach volleyball for the Golden Eagles before signing with Louisiana State this summer to play beach volleyball as a graduate transfer. In interviews (unrelated to any of these legal issues) and other appearances, her dad has sung the praises of Southern Miss and their sparkling volleyball facilities.
On Sept. 12, Nancy New's attorney filed text message records pertaining to the state's ongoing civil lawsuit, including texts that purportedly show former Gov. Phil Bryant intervening on Favre's behalf to help get the volleyball funds flowing.
Per the filing reviewed by NBC News, Favre asked Nancy in an Aug. 3, 2017, text, "If you were to pay me is there anyway [sic] the media can find out where it came from and how much?" To which she replied, "No, we never have had that information publicized. I understand you being uneasy about that though." She said she'd get back to him after talking to "some of the folks at Southern."
The next day, she wrote to Favre, "Wow, just got off the phone with Phil Bryant! He is on board with us! We will get this done!"
A text in the filing from Bryant to Nancy on July, 16, 2019, read (per Mississippi Today, which was first to report on the text exchanges), "Just left Brett Favre. Can we help him with his project. We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course."
Another text shows Favre offering to make paid fundraising appearances, so he could talk up the volleyball building, to supplement the $4 million initially approved by the MDHS.
The 2020 state auditor's report showed Nancy's nonprofit paying $2.5 million to Favre Enterprises in November 2017, followed by another $2.5 million the following month. The aforementioned speech money was sent in December 2017 and June 2018, in respective $500,000 and $600,000 payments.
In the Sept. 12 filing, per Mississippi Today, Nancy's attorney alleged that MDHS executives, including the governor, knew what Favre wanted and "participated in directing, approving, or providing Favre MDHS funds to be used for construction of the Volleyball Facility."
Bryant, who left office in 2020, has persistently denied having any knowledge of federal welfare money being spent on the volleyball facility or any other improper projects in violation of state and federal law, according to NBC News. He has not been charged with any crime.
In August, Bryant's attorney objected to a subpoena for any records related to the volleyball project, arguing his texts were protected by executive privilege, but a text message records were filed with the court last month, per the New York Times.
"I've asked Brett not to do the things he's doing to seek funding from state agencies and the legislature for the volleyball facility," Southern Miss' then-president Dr. Rodney Bennett wrote to Bryant in January 2020, per court filings. "I will see for the 'umpteenth time' if we can get him to stand down...The bottom line is he personally guaranteed the project, and on his word and handshake we proceeded. It's time for him to pay up—it really is just that simple."
To which Bryant replied, per the filing, "That's was [sic] my thoughts. Maybe he wants the State to pay off his promises. Like all of us I like Brett. He is a legend but he has to understand what a pledge means. I have tried many time(s) to explain that to him."
Again denying Favre knew the money was coming from welfare funds, his attorney told Mississippi Today last month, "Brett Favre has been honorable throughout this whole thing."
Did Brett Favre's charity make improper donations?
Tax records first reported on by The Athletic and obtained by E! News in September show that the beleaguered athlete's Favre 4 Hope foundation—the result of his eponymous charitable foundation joining forces with his wife's Deanna Favre Hope Foundation in 2010 with the stated intention to help disadvantaged children and cancer patients—donated $130,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation between 2018 and 2020.
Per the tax records, Favre 4 Hope gave $60,000 to Southern Miss in 2018, while its next-highest donation that year was $10,000. In 2019, the Special Olympics of Mississippi got $11,000 from the charity, while the university got $46,817.
The Athletic also obtained tax records showing Favre 4 Hope donating $60,000 to the Oak Grove Booster Club in 2015, when Breleigh was playing volleyball for Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, one of several Favre 4 Hope donations to the club while she was a student there.
E! News' requests for comment from Favre's attorney, Favre 4 Hope and the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation were not returned.
Favre's lawyer Bud Holmes told ESPN Sept. 28, "He has been very generous to Southern Miss since he played ball there. Those particular things [the donations in question] I don't know, but I know he has always given back, something most athletes don't do."
But sizable donations that don't seem to align with Favre 4 Hope's mission statement are raising eyebrows among experts in charitable giving.
"You can't say you're raising money for one purpose and then spend it on something totally different," Laurie Styron, executive director of CharityWatch, told The Athletic. "Charities have an ethical obligation, and in some cases a legal obligation, to fulfill the intentions of its donors in the way funds are spent."
Added Rick Cohen, Chief Operating Officer of the National Council of Nonprofits, "It isn't unheard of for a nonprofit to expand its mission or change its mission over time if they find they need to redirect. That does not seem to be the case here."
What has Brett Favre had to say about the scandal?
Favre has repeatedly denied wrongdoing or knowingly accepting welfare funds, but not until Oct. 11 did he release a statement responding to the latest reports encompassing his charity and the text messages.
"I have been unjustly smeared in the media," he said. "I have done nothing wrong, and it is past time to set the record straight.
No one ever told me, and I did not know, that funds designated for welfare recipients were going to the University or me.
"I tried to help my alma mater USM, a public Mississippi state university, raise funds for a wellness center. My goal was and always will be to improve the athletic facilities at my university.
"State agencies provided the funds to Nancy New's charity, the Mississippi Community Education Center, which then gave the funds to the University, all with the full knowledge and approval of other State agencies, including the State-wide Institute for Higher Learning, the Governor's office and the Attorney General's office. I was told that the legal work to ensure that these funds could be accepted by the university was done by State attorneys and State employees.
"After I found out that the money I was paid for fundraising radio spots came from federal welfare funds, I returned all of it."
Where does public opinion stand on Brett Favre?
Charitable good works, his endearing cameo in There's Something About Mary and legions of Green Bay fans aside—White has said that a lot of the hate he's getting has come from the Wisconsin area—Favre has been as polarizing as any celebrity who's ever been the subject of a scandal, ventured a political opinion or simply played for the opposing team can be.
Then again, Twitter can make anyone polarizing these days.
While the love-hate-or-shrug response to the latest crop of Favre headlines extends to people in Mississippi, Favre reportedly still has plenty of support in his hometown of Kiln (pop: 2,452 in 2020)—or at least folks are too focused on how they're going to pay the bills to pay Favre much mind.
"I don't have time to worry about people fighting over millions of dollars," a bartender at the Broke Spoke in Kiln who gave his name as Hot Rod told ESPN. "We have our own problems. Ain't none of my business."
Shad White, the state auditor, said, "At some point, you stop reading your Facebook messages. We get a ton of calls from people who say, 'Thank you for doing what you do,' but we get a ton of calls from people who say, 'Don't be messin' with that guy.'"