The fraud that's corrupting the State of Mississippi and our country in general is appalling.
It may not be the worst that has occurred in our nation, but the fact that scammers and rich people are misusing money designated for the poorest residents in the poorest state makes it even more disgusting.
What has become known as the Brett Favre scandal is making headlines across the country, and it appears the facts go far beyond the former football star cajoling state officials to provide $5 million to build a volleyball stadium at his alma mater where his daughter was a student.
The Favre-Mississippi case has escalated as massive fraud in the government's COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program and unemployment insurance scams continue to evolve. The ease with which scammers and fraudsters of all types could access government funds intended for legitimate businesspeople and indigent individuals is eye-opening.
Favre's connection to the scandal emerged when investigators in 2020 found that more than $77 million in federal funds intended for Mississippi's poorest residents had been misspent or pocketed by state government officials, former professional athletes and nonprofit organization heads. Favre is accused of misappropriating about $8 million in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funding.
In recent weeks the nonprofit news site Mississippi Today published a story on text messages between Favre, former Mississippi governor Phil Bryant, and Nancy New, head of the nonprofit at the center of the scandal. New has pleaded guilty to fraud, bribery and racketeering. Favre is accused of receiving $1.1 million in welfare money from New's nonprofit in "speaking fees" for talks he never gave. In a text Favre wrote to New, "If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?"
The media and world did indeed find out.
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Favre didn't want to spend his own money
We also found out about the $5 million in TANF money Favre cajoled out of the state and directed toward construction of a new volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, his alma mater. In a text message to New, Favre made it clear he had committed to building the volleyball facility but didn't want to use his own money. It should be noted that during his career, Favre made at least $140 million.
He's also been accused of orchestrating a deal to have $2.1 million in TANF money spent on stock in a biotech company in which he was a major shareholder. It seems Favre worked out a deal with Nancy New and John Davis, former head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Davis recently pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges related to the welfare scheme.
Of course, Favre has denied doing anything wrong, saying he didn't know the source of the funds. However, several texts from him to the former governor and to Nancy New seem to indicate he did indeed know. So far Favre has not been charged with any crimes.
Yet he is suffering consequences and has been questioned by the FBI. His name has been sullied, his reputation muddied, and his radio show appearances have been put on hold. There are many questions as to why the popular NFL Hall of Famer would stoop to such debauchery after earning more than $140 million in salary during his 20-year career. Favre's net worth is now $100 million.
Mississippi could have helped its low-income residents more
The actions by Favre and others in Mississippi are especially disgusting because the state has a long history of ignoring the needs of its impoverished citizens. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, with 19% of residents living in poverty. In basic assistance, Mississippi ranks 47th among U.S. states in amount of money it spends.
According to Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, profiteering off the poor is ongoing in the state. "You take from the poor and give to the rich," he said of Mississippi officials.
Thompson also said that Mississippi is one of 12 states that has refused to expand Medicaid and has regularly turned down federal money meant to improve medical treatment, housing and childcare. At the end of 2020, the state had $47 million in unspent TANF funds.
It seems that some government officials in Mississippi were, and maybe still are, determined to make sure federal funds did not get to the people for whom it was intended, that millions of dollars were illegally granted to wealthy people who already had money - and running water, safe drinking water, decent places to live, jobs and food to eat.
That greed characterizes the people who scammed billions of dollars from the Paycheck Protection Program. Thousands of people who participated in the program established in 2020 to help businesses survive the pandemic schemed to create what federal prosecutors are referring to as the largest fraud in the nation's history. Billions of dollars in taxpayer money were used to purchase fancy cars, mansions, flights on private jets and luxurious vacations.
Taxpayers should be livid
Experts say that as much as $80 billion, about 10% of the $800 billion distributed in the Paycheck Protection Program, ended up with scammers.
That greed also embodies the criminals who stole an estimated $45.6 billion by making fraudulent unemployment insurance claims intended for people laid off during the pandemic. Fraudsters used Social Security numbers of deceased people and others in prison. Some even filed for unemployment benefits in multiple states. More than a thousand people have been charged with COVID-19 unemployment insurance fraud since March 2020.
That pandemic unemployment insurance program, which started in March 2020, gave people who lost their jobs an extra $600 a week in federal aid; that later was decreased to $300 a week. The Labor Department said the program drew people seeking to exploit the program, "resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payment."
The amount of money lost in these scams is hard to imagine for most honest Americans. Yet, we are the ones who should be angry, for it is coming from taxpayer coffers. What's even more disgusting is that many of the people for whom this money was intended will continue to struggle, and others even suffer in poverty.
The government made many mistakes in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many lives were lost unnecessarily. But so was a lot of money. We can do better. As a nation we must.
Lynn Norment, a columnist for The Commercial Appeal, is a former editor for Ebony Magazine.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Brett Favre scandal: Greed, corruption at the expense of poor people