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Brett Favre denies wrongdoing in Mississippi welfare fraud case

Brett Favre linked to welfare scandal
Brett Favre's projects tied to welfare scandal, according to texts obtained by CBS News 03:09

Brett Favre, the former NFL player who has been linked to allegations of welfare fraud in Mississippi, said this week that journalists and the public have the story wrong.

"I have been unjustly smeared in the media," Favre said in a statement Tuesday. "I have done nothing wrong, and it is past time to set the record straight."

Favre's new lawyer also went public Tuesday with his defense of the Hall of Famer, telling CBS News in his first interview since agreeing to represent the quarterback that Favre never knew he was receiving money from funds meant for his home state of Mississippi's poor.

Favre's defense attorney, Eric Herschmann, maintains his client was an outsider who trusted government officials and did "nothing wrong." Favre has not been charged with any crime. Herschmann said he believes his client is being unfairly targeted by the press. 

"Right now my view of it is I see somebody who's become a punching bag in the media. He's a high profile person," Herschmann said. "His name is out there, so that's what people are talking about. But if people looked at it in detail, they will see he has done nothing wrong in this circumstance."

Favre has drawn scrutiny for his communications with state officials, including some who have been accused of using a non-profit organization to redirect federal funds intended for low-income families.  

"No one ever told me, and I did not know, that funds designated for welfare recipients were going to the university or me," Favre said. "I tried to help my alma mater [the University of Southern Mississippi], 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."

Favre has previously acknowledged soliciting state funds for a volleyball stadium at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter was on the team. 

Favre's daughter began playing volleyball at the school in 2017 and is the fourth winningest beach volleyball player in the school's history. Favre, who played 20 seasons in the NFL, graduated from Southern Mississippi in 1991.

The pitch for Prevacus

On Tuesday, CBS News reported on newly obtained pitch materials showing that Favre hosted Mississippi officials at his home in January 2019, where an executive for a pharmaceutical company Favre invested in solicited nearly $2 million [in state  funds.]

A document distributed at the January 2, 2019, meeting describes plans to secure money from the state's Department of Human Services, which operates Mississippi's welfare program. The pitch was led by Jacob VanLandingham, then the CEO of pharmaceutical company Prevacus, which was attempting to develop a concussion drug.

"I think Brett's job was to make the introductions with an idea that if the drug is successful, they'll develop it within the state," Herschmann explained. "But keeping this in mind, this is the Mississippi Department of Human Services. This is a thing if the drug is successful will obviously benefit people throughout the country. So they were discussing a state grant."  

The meeting at Favre's Lamar County home was not his first interaction with state officials about the company. One month earlier, text messages first reported by Mississippi Today appear to show the former NFL quarterback personally lobbied then-governor Phil Bryant. The news site reported that VanLandingham offered Bryant stock in the company, and Bryant agreed to accept it after leaving office.

"It's 3rd and long and we need you to make it happen!!" Favre wrote to the governor, according to Mississippi Today.

"I will open a hole," Bryant replied, a reference to the work of a football offensive lineman. Favre later updated Bryant after Prevacus began receiving state funds, according to Mississippi Today.

Herschmann told CBS News that state officials, including Bryant, never told Favre that the money would come from welfare funds. Herschmann pointed out that Bryant had previously served as Mississippi state auditor, leading the department that oversees public funds.

"He knew who all the parties were involved. If there was an issue about these funds not being used, or unable to be used, he should have been the first one that stood up and said something," said Herschmann. "He never said anything to Brett Favre, nor did anyone else ever tell him that this was restricted welfare funds."

On January 19, 2019, VanLandingham and a nonprofit that distributed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare funds, signed a contract for $1.7 million promising Mississippi that, in return for the money, it would have the "first right of refusal for clinical trial sites." 

In total, Prevacus received over $2.1 million from the state funds that were completely intended for the alleviation of poverty and prevention of teenage pregnancy. 

There is no evidence that clinical trial sites have been established in Mississippi. An attorney for VanLandingham told CBS News that sites for the next trial are being identified and Mississippi remains a candidate, in accordance with the contract. 

Investigators that reviewed the transactions on behalf of the state found that prior to the grant, Favre was the largest investor in Prevacus.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services has filed a lawsuit against Favre, three former pro wrestlers, and other people and businesses to try to recover the remaining millions in TANF funds. The suit alleges that Favre was one of a number of private individuals who sought to siphon off some of the welfare money. 

"No one ever said that the Mississippi grant funds were coming from a federal entity that limited the welfare funds," Herschmann said.

Favre's name surfaced in the scandal earlier this year when he was mentioned in an audit of Mississippi's state budget that found state officials in 2021 funneled more than $70 million in TANF funds to Favre and other individuals. More specifically, state officials used a nonprofit organization to funnel $1.1 million to Favre as a stipend to perform speeches that he never gave, Mississippi auditor Shad White said.

Weeks after Favre was mentioned in the audit, SiriusXM suspended his podcast and ESPN Milwaukee halted his weekly radio show. 

Favre said he has repaid more than $1 million in fees for speeches he never delivered and for radio spots that were paid for from the Mississippi welfare fund.

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