Marcus Dupree, who rose to fame in Mississippi and beyond after a brief but impressive football career that became the subject of an ESPN documentary, is speaking out about his alleged role in a sprawling welfare fraud case that has also entangled Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Brett Favre and dozens of others.
A lawsuit filed in May by the Mississippi Department of Human Services alleges Dupree was illegally paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal welfare money that was intended for the state's neediest families. On Wednesday, Dupree denied wrongdoing in an interview with ESPN.
"I don't appreciate being lumped into something like I took money," Dupree said. "I worked too hard on my reputation to do the right thing and be the right person, and I don't like what's going on."
Dupree, 58, grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where his highlight-reel-worthy performances as a high school running back made him the most sought-after football recruit in the country. Dupree was a standout in his freshman season at the University of Oklahoma in 1982, but his career was ultimately hampered by injuries. His football journey was profiled in a 2010 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, "The Best That Never Was."
During his post-playing days, Dupree maintained local-celebrity status within his home state, frequently appearing at public functions or events staged through his foundation.
But his name didn't appear with any frequency in the national media until the results of a state audit in Mississippi became public and a lawsuit was then filed by the state in May against Dupree, his foundation and dozens of other defendants.
According to the lawsuit, from August 2017 to September 2019 Dupree was paid $371,000 from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds.
A Mississippi Department of Human Services initiative called Families First for Mississippi, run by two nonprofits, illegally funneled the federal welfare money to Dupree, the lawsuit states, in exchange for his work as a "celebrity endorser" and "motivational speaker."
An investigation by Mississippi Today was the first to reveal that the nonprofits that paid Dupree and others either misspent or stole at least $77 million in welfare funds in what's considered the worst public corruption case in state history.
Dupree told ESPN he "was shocked" when he learned that Nancy New, the head of one of the nonprofits, the Mississippi Community Education Center, had pleaded guilty to 13 felony counts of bribery, fraud and racketeering. Dupree said he was not aware the money New had used to pay him had come from misappropriated welfare funds.
According to a 2019 state audit, Dupree was paid, in part, for "equine assisted learning," which Mississippi's state auditor, Shad White, told ESPN meant "teaching people how to ride horses."
White said his office found "limited evidence" Dupree or anyone else ever delivered those sorts of services to the needy.
But Dupree insists he did mentor teens at his 15-acre horse farm in Flora, Mississippi.
"I mentored the kids through the horses by having responsibility, cleaning the stalls, and, if you got good with that, I'd let you ride a horse. Most of the parents just wanted them to be around me. I'm passionate about what we did, and for the state to be talking about 'Oh, none of that happened,' yes it did," Dupree said.
Dupree said he couldn't quantify how many times he mentored teens at his horse farm, but he says over the roughly two-year period he was paid by the state he also made 20 to 30 appearances working as a liaison for Families First, traveling Mississippi to speak in prisons and schools and recording radio commercials.
"I was all over the state. I signed a contract and I did my job," Dupree said.
"I'm getting lumped in with whatever Brett Favre and the Governor had going on. I didn't even know about that, nothing. I was shocked when I heard it. I can't wait until we go to court. I don't know what Brett did. I can only speak for Marcus." Marcus Dupree on fraud allegations
Dupree provided ESPN several photos of what appear to be teenage boys, whom he says he mentored at his stables in Flora, as well as photos from numerous public appearances.
"If Mr. Dupree would like to argue that the amounts he was paid were reasonably justified for the number of speeches given and can show proof of the speeches, he will be able to make that argument in a court," White said.
On April 13, 2018, Dupree's foundation purchased the horse farm and residence in Flora where Dupree lives for $855,000. The five-bedroom, 4,100-square-foot home is valued at just over $1 million, according to the real estate website Zillow.
According to an audit conducted by White's office, $171,000 in TANF money was used as the down payment toward Dupree's home and surrounding property.
White told ESPN such purchases "would be unallowable because of the prohibition against purchasing real property with TANF funds." He also noted the "unreasonableness" of using federal welfare money, intended for job training and assistance for needy families, to help purchase a five-bedroom home and a horse farm for a state-contracted employee.
The nonprofit that funneled the money to Dupree went as far as to "guarantee the residence through the bank with a six-year lease from April 1, 2018 through March 31, 2024," according to the state audit. The monthly lease payments for the property totaled $9,500, the audit states.
Dupree said he has no intention of paying the state back, as White's office has demanded. "I have a lawyer, and I'm just waiting to see how it all pans out," Dupree said.
In October 2021, Dupree's lawyer, J. Matthew Eichelberger, sent a sharply worded letter to White.
"Neither Mr. Dupree, nor his foundation, will be making any payment in response to your demand. Make no mistake: Mr. Dupree earned the money he was paid, and he never had any reason to believe the money was being improperly spent by state officials," Eichelberger wrote.
To date, six people have been indicted in the pending welfare fraud case. Five have pleaded guilty.
Brett Favre is not among those facing criminal charges, but, like Dupree, he remains a defendant in the ongoing civil lawsuit filed by the state of Mississippi in May. Text messages show he pressured Phil Bryant, a former Mississippi governor, to obtain $5 million in funds to help build a new volleyball center at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter played the sport. Favre has denied wrongdoing.
Dupree said negative press involving Favre in recent months has damaged his own reputation.
"I'm getting lumped in with whatever Brett Favre and the governor had going on. I didn't even know about that, nothing. I was shocked when I heard it. I can't wait until we go to court. I don't know what Brett did. I can only speak for Marcus."