Former Mississippi human services official pleads guilty to state and federal charges in massive welfare fraud scheme, prosecutors say

The former head of Mississippi’s Department of Human Services has pleaded guilty to both state and federal conspiracy and theft charges in what officials have called the largest embezzlement scheme in the state’s history, according to the Department of Justice and the Hinds County District Attorney.

John Davis, 54, served as the department director at the time that state auditors say more than $70 million of federal welfare funds were being misused, including being spent on officials’ personal expenses and being funneled into projects connected to prominent Mississippians, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

The US Department of Justice said Thursday that 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,” the DOJ 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, the 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.

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 state auditor has said around $77 million of money intended for a state welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, was improperly used.

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 the former NFL quarterback, 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 and Bryant is also not named as a defendant in the civil suit.

The former quarterback’s attorney told CNN Favre did not know welfare funds were being used for the volleyball center.

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