By Melissa Alonso and Dianne Gallagher, CNN
Updated: Sat, 24 Sep 2022 03:48:02 GMT
A former top state official in Mississippi pleaded guilty Thursday to state and federal charges in connection to an embezzlement scheme that auditors say misused millions of welfare dollars, including funneling funds into projects linked to prominent Mississippians like former NFL star Brett Favre.
Officials from the US Department of Justice and the Hinds County District Attorney Office announced the one-time head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, John Davis, had pleaded guilty to two federal counts and 18 state counts.
Davis, 54, served as the director of the Human Services Department at the time state auditors say more than $70 million of federal welfare funds were being misused, including being spent on officials' personal expenses and by charities on projects unrelated to the welfare program.
The DOJ said Davis and "his co-conspirators" used federal funds "for their personal use and benefit."
"At Davis's direction, MDHS provided federal funds to two nonprofit organizations and then directed the two nonprofit organizations to fraudulently award contracts to various entities and individuals for social services that were never provided," federal prosecutors said in a news release.
On Thursday, the former state official pleaded guilty to two federal charges: one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and to commit theft concerning programs receiving federal funds and one count of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds, the DOJ announced. He could be sentenced to up to five years in prison on the conspiracy count and 10 years on the theft count.
Davis also pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy and 13 counts of fraud in Hinds County, District Attorney Jody E. Owens said in a tweet Thursday.
"Davis was one of six Defendants arrested and later indicted in 2020 in one of the largest embezzlement schemes in Mississippi history," Owens said.
Auditor says $77 million in funds were intended for welfare program
The vast fraud scheme was uncovered in 2020 by a state audit of federal funds allocated to state agencies. When State Auditor Shad White announced the finding, he called the scheme "the most egregious misspending my staff have seen in their careers."
The eight-month long investigation showed that the department gave more than $98 million to two non-profits: The Mississippi Community Education Center and the Family Resource Center of North Mississippi. Of the $98 million, $94 million was "questioned," meaning it was either definitively misspent or auditors were unable to determine whether it was legally spent.
The state auditor has said around $77 million of money was intended for a state welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Last week White told CNN, "I think what you had was a lot of money being pushed through a state agency that decided to then funnel that money to a nonprofit. There just were not a ton of checks on how that nonprofit was spending this money until the auditor's office started digging into it.
"And then, you know, going another step forward into the future, I think that it's important that we show the public that there are going to be consequences for this."
Favre's alma mater got new volleyball arena
According to investigators, more than $4 million was used to a build a Brett Favre-backed volleyball center at the University of Southern Mississippi, Favre's alma mater, and where his daughter played the sport at the time.
The state of Mississippi filed a civil suit against more than 35 people and entities, including Pro Football Hall of Famer, earlier this year.
Text messages were released last week as part of that civil suit by attorneys for the non-profit founded by Nancy New, who has already pleaded guilty to charges related to the welfare funds scheme. They showed Favre discussing getting money through New's nonprofit and expressing his love for Davis after being told of the funding, as well as meetings with Davis and former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant about the funding.
Bryant and Favre have not been criminally charged with any wrongdoing at this time. Bryant is also not named as a defendant in the civil suit.
The former quarterback's attorney told CNN that Favre, who retired after the 2010 season and a 20-year NFL career, did not know welfare funds were being used for the volleyball center and that his fundraising efforts for the volleyball center were honorable.