Brett Favre's involvement in Mississippi welfare scandal draws outrage and indifference

Visiting Brett Favre's hometown, Kiln, Mississippi (2:05)

Brett Favre is Kiln, Mississippi's most famous son. But now, he's linked to a welfare scandal that directly affects the needy in a state with the nation's highest poverty rate. (2:05)

KILN, Miss. -- The paint on the bar has faded into the wood at Broke Spoke, a biker haunt in the center of Kiln. But through the front door with a Confederate flag, beneath a ceiling of bras left by visitors for posterity, a gold New Orleans Saints logo is still visible next to Brett Favre's No. 4, in yellow, popping out of Minnesota Vikings purple.

Kiln, a town of fewer than 2,500 people along the Gulf Coast, is less than an hour from New Orleans, but the hometown team was always whichever employed Favre, whose career took him from Kiln to Canton.

The Hall of Fame quarterback played most of his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers (the green-and-yellow barstools say "Go Pack") but finished with the Vikings, whom he led to the NFC Championship Game against the Saints in January 2010 -- the impetus for the paint job.

But he belonged to his hometown -- and this local watering hole -- more than anywhere else. Favre is immortalized in the parking lot, in framed photos of bar regulars at Lambeau Field, with Wisconsin license plates and a yellow-and-green three-wheeler that one of the bar owners, Mabel, rode through the room to high-five patrons after touchdowns. Even Favre's mother used to be a regular.

When game day arrived, cars lined up and down Kiln-Picayune Road.

"Those were the days," says a bartender named Hot Rod.

These days, Favre has become embroiled in the largest case of public fraud in Mississippi history, involved in a scandal that, according to a state audit, has seen at least $77 million of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds line the pockets of rich and powerful Mississippians. Six people have been arrested, five of whom have pleaded guilty for their involvement. Favre has denied wrongdoing and has not been criminally charged.

For years, football-mad Mississippi cheered on Kiln's most famous son. But now, one of its gridiron greats is linked to a welfare scandal that directly affects the needy in a state with the nation's highest poverty rate and the highest Black population by percentage. Bring up all that in various parts of Mississippi, from his hometown to the state capital to his alma mater, and there are long faces and short answers.

"Breaks your heart," Hot Rod says.

"How could it not?" says Chris, a regular, looking up from his beer. Chris walks behind the bar, discards his bottle and grabs another. It's that kind of place.

Hot Rod says he just wants to focus on the good times, many of them watching Favre in this bar, that brought him happiness. And the Favre he knows has always been an upstanding citizen.

"I don't have time to worry about people fighting over millions of dollars," he says. "We have our own problems. Ain't none of my business."

Hot Rod points to the faded paint in front of him. On that day in January 2010, Favre rolled right, threw across his body and was intercepted with 14 seconds left in regulation. The Vikings went on to lose in overtime. But that's not what Hot Rod talks about. He talks about where the paint used to be.

A line stretched from that bartop all the way to the front door, splitting Broke Spoke in half. Saints fans on one side, Vikings on the other.

With Favre or against him.

SINCE FAVRE'S CONNECTION to the investigation became public more than two years ago, Belinda Gardner, the administrative assistant at Mississippi state auditor Shad White's office, has fielded different versions of the same phone call.

Ten to 15 times a day, she says, people cuss in her ear and debate her on the merits of the audit. The calls come in from Las Vegas, Chicago, New Orleans and, of course, Mississippi.

"[One woman said], 'I don't think you all get it. Mr. White needs to leave [Favre] alone,'" Gardner says.

The messages don't always come by phone. "At some point, you stop reading your Facebook messages," says White, who says he's also received physical threats. "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.'"

According to the state audit and a civil lawsuit, Favre was paid $1.1 million from TANF funds for speeches the auditor says he never made. He eventually paid the money back, but the auditor has demanded he also pay $228,000 in interest. Prevacus, a company developing a concussion drug in which Favre is the top investor and stockholder, also received TANF funds. And the athletic foundation at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, received $5 million in welfare money. Text messages show Favre pushed state officials for funding for a new volleyball facility on campus during the time his daughter was on the team.

"If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?" Favre texted Nancy New, an official who ran the nonprofit that misappropriated welfare money. New has since pleaded guilty to fraud.

He continued to press for money even after being told by then-Gov. Phil Bryant that misusing public funds could be illegal, texts show.

Favre's longtime attorney, Bud Holmes, agreed to meet ESPN on Sept. 30 at Mom and Dad's Country Cooking in Petal, Miss., just outside Hattiesburg. But he never showed up, citing a scheduling mix-up. The day before, however, Holmes told Front Office Sports that he no longer represented Favre in the welfare case.

His new attorney, Eric Herschmann, a former top lawyer in the Trump White House, did not respond to a request for comment. He previously told Axios that Favre had "no idea that welfare funds were being used or that others were involved in illegal conduct."

According to White, sometime after the audit was published in 2020, Favre asked him for a face-to-face meeting. "Absolutely not," White says he responded. "You can't have a private meeting where you might try to make this go away."

Instead, White said, one of his investigators met with Favre's team and the FBI to go over the audit.

Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens declined to comment about Favre, but told ESPN that state and federal investigators continue to look into the case and "pursue any individuals who have had any criminal conduct."

In White's office, the phone rings again. Gardner braces for the worst. But the man on the other end isn't calling about Favre. He wants to talk about another crisis gripping Jackson: the lack of potable water in recent weeks due to aging and underfunded infrastructure.

"My water bill," the man says, "is like $1,000."

"SEE THIS HERE?" Dwight King says. "It used to be like the Sunset Strip."

King is gesturing up and down Farish Street, standing in front of the Big Apple Inn, which is known for some of the best food in Jackson, a city that is more than 80% Black. The restaurant -- above which civil rights activist Medgar Evers had an office in the 1950s -- is located on what was once called "The Black Mecca of Mississippi," the hub of Black business.

Over the years, Farish Street has dwindled. King, who grew up in the area, remembers it humming in the 1970s. Now, vacant buildings line the street.

Smith was surprised to hear of the allegations against Favre. "Brett Favre, the football player?" he asked incredulously, cocking his arm back in a throwing motion. But he wasn't surprised to learn that government money didn't find its way to those who need it most. He'd seen it before, right here on Farish Street.

The Mississippi government delivers the least amount of welfare assistance in the country. Federal data shows that in 2020 the state spent less than 5%, or about $3.7 million, on direct cash assistance to poor families, compared to 22% nationally.

State senator David L. Jordan has heard from countless people in his district. They come up to him on the street where he lives in the Mississippi Delta, one of the state's poorer regions. They want to know what is going on with the funds that were designated for them, and what the government is going to do to make it right.

"These are rock-bottom poor people," Jordan says. "They're not loafs. Many of them are poor church folk."

But many people may not be aware of the investigation, or see it as anything out of the ordinary, says Vangela Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit law firm aimed at advancing social justice. They're just trying to make it through the day, to scrape together enough money for gas and food for their families.

"It becomes something of, 'Oh well that's the norm,'" Wade says. "They're not necessarily expecting anything differently than what they've seen for a lifetime."

IT'S GREEK NIGHT at Southern Miss's state-of-the-art volleyball building. Memphis rapper BlocBoy JB booms; Pitbull thumps. Athletes do the limbo. A woman waves her sorority flag as about 100 people settle into the bleachers to watch the women's volleyball team take on Troy.

When the crowd rises for the national anthem, the announcer first asks everyone to observe a moment of silence for those who are struggling with mental health. "Welcome to the Wellness Center," he says.

According to the state audit, New's nonprofit agreed to a sublease with the university's Athletic Foundation for "a multi-purpose wellness center on the University's campus," which White said was an attempt to legally substantiate the use of TANF funds. New was on the Athletic Foundation's board at the time.

"In this case, [what happened was], 'Okay, well, if we lease this volleyball court using TANF funds, the way we'll justify it is the court will be used as the sort of wellness center for the community,'" White told ESPN.

But according to White, the TANF funds were used improperly.

"This was a lot of money, millions of dollars, going to, allegedly, lease a volleyball court that was not yet built. ... A very, very expensive lease for a nonexistent facility. It's money to help build the facility. ... TANF funds can't be used to pay for a brick-and-mortar structure."

Before the volleyball facility was built, White's office asked whether New's nonprofit had used other university property to benefit the community, as stipulated by the terms of the lease, the 2019 audit said. They were told that it had been once, on Oct. 18, 2018, for a Healthy Teens Rally at the school's basketball arena.

Even if they don't know all the specifics, current students -- walking this campus over 30 years after Favre played quarterback here -- are paying attention to the investigation and making their own determination.

"It's robbery," says Kaelin Worthington, a student from northern Mississippi. "Mississippi is one of the poorest states. He's literally Brett Favre. He could have [paid for] it himself. Five million should be nothing to him."

"That's how the USA works these days," says Heather Broome, a junior. "Rich people take advantage of any hope poor people have to get richer."

Ryan Dangiole grew up in New Orleans and Slidell, Louisiana, and he has family not far from Kiln. He knows what football means there, what Favre means. He was just starting to get into football when Favre's Vikings faced his Saints in that NFC Championship Game.

When asked about the scandal, Dangiole has a lot of questions. He wants to know if Favre will be arrested or if the school will be blamed.

"I think that's terrible if he took that money, if it was knowingly," he says.

When he's told that this building was supposed to host events for the poor, Dangiole sits straight up for a moment.

"Doesn't really look like the place to hold that," he says.

ACROSS THE STREET from Broke Spoke, a mural proclaims: "KILN MISSISSIPPI! WHERE THE LEGEND BEGAN." Inside the building, four people sit at faded yellow tabletops. When asked about Favre, one man swings around.

"Oh, that a--hole?" he says. "We were just talking about him."

All four exit the gas station and scramble to their cars. With one foot inside his silver RAM 1500, one man says he doesn't want to say much, including his name.

"He's my cousin," the man says. "That's blood."

He frowns.

"Look, if he did it, he needs to go to jail. In my heart, I don't think he did," he continues. "He don't need the money. He's got all the money in the world."

Reminders of Favre are everywhere in Kiln -- on the mural, on a sign that welcomes folks to town, at Hancock High School, where players lift weights under framed Favre jerseys and play on Brett Favre Field in the shadow of a Favre statue in a gunslinging pose, throwing off his back foot.

In the parking lot in front of the mural, another man refuses to give his name. He says he works for Favre's mom and played quarterback at Hancock before Favre did. He grows agitated when asked about misappropriated funds.

"Brett Favre didn't take no money out of anybody's pockets," he says.

He turns to walk away, heading up Kiln-Picayune Road, where cars lined up to watch Favre in that NFC Championship Game almost 13 years ago.

"That's all I got to say about that."