In the wake of recent disclosures of texts related to Mississippi’s welfare scandal, retired NFL star Brett Favre has hired Eric Herschmann, an Austin, Texas-based attorney who served as a lawyer for former President Donald Trump. Herschmann will represent Favre amid the ongoing investigations and civil suit over what State Auditor and Hinds County District Jody Owens called the largest welfare-fraud scandal in Mississippi history when they announced their investigation in February 2020.

Axios first reported the hire on Monday after Front Office Sports revealed that Favre’s former attorney, Bud Holmes, was no longer representing him. Prosecutors have not accused Favre of a crime in any of the ongoing criminal cases related to the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families welfare money.

The Axios report says the former Green Bay Packers quarterback, who lives in Hattiesburg, hired Eric Herschmann after the attorney “spent several weeks reviewing years of text messages, emails and contracts.”

“I only agreed to represent Brett Favre after I did my independent due diligence and was convinced that he did nothing wrong,” Axios quotes the attorney as saying. “Brett enthusiastically tried to help his alma mater, a public university, that needed and wanted his help.”

While not a criminal defendant, Favre is named in a civil suit in which the Mississippi Department of Human Services is attempting to claw back millions in illegally spent TANF funds from 38 individuals or entities. The civil suit is separate from the criminal cases.

‘I Need Your Influence’

Between 2017 and 2020, Brett Favre sought help from state officials and others to fund a volleyball stadium at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter was playing volleyball at the time.

On Sept. 12, 2022, attorneys for Mississippi Community Education Center Founder Nancy New, filed a legal memorandum in the civil suit in Hinds County Circuit Court to compel former Gov. Phil Bryant to produce documents and communications that he argues are privileged. That filing disclosed dozens of text messages between New, Favre and Bryant discussing the USM project.

a photo of the USM volleyball stadium seen from around an oak tree
After Brett Favre met with then-MDHS Director John Davis and MCEC Director Nancy New in 2017, Davis and New directed millions in MDHS funds to build this volleyball stadium, known as the Wellness Center, on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, Favre’s alma mater where his daughter was playing volleyball. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Along with being a defendant in the civil suit, New is a criminal defendant who, along with her son Zach New, pleaded guilty to funneling millions in TANF funds to illegitimate uses through her nonprofit, MCEC. She pleaded guilty to multiple charges in April and agreed to assist investigators as part of a plea deal. The text messages filed in the civil case are not related to her plea agreement, however, and are part of an effort to avoid paying back funds MDHS claims New’s nonprofit owes.

New’s Sept. 12 filing was part of an effort to compel Bryant to turn over documents related to the volleyball project that her lawyers argue could show that the former governor was aware of or even directed the theft.

The texts included New and Favre discussing a pledge that former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis made to give $4 million in funds toward the volleyball project. That total would eventually rise to $5 million, paid for with TANF funds that should have gone to Mississippi’s neediest families with children. Davis pleaded guilty to multiple state and federal criminal charges over the welfare scandal last month, though none relating to the volleyball project specifically.

The MCEC filings show that Favre had concerns that even Davis’ $4-million pledge would not be enough, and that New arranged to pay him $1.1 million, ostensibly for promotional work and motivational speeches, that he could put toward the volleyball project.

“If you were to pay me is there anyway (sic) the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre asked Nancy New in an Aug. 3, 2017, text message, MCEC court filings indicated. “No, we never have had that information publicized,” New replied, adding that she understood him “being uneasy about that though.”

‘Brett Had No Idea’

New’s Mississippi Communication Education Center argued in its Sept. 12 court filings that Bryant has information relevant to its defense in the MDHS civil suit, in which lawyers for the Sstate of Mississippi are demanding the nonprofit to return millions in TANF funds, including the $1.1 million it paid Favre (even Favre has already paid it back, except for $228,000 in interest). The Sept. 12, 2022, MCEC filing noted that the State’s lawsuit claims the organization “paid Favre $1,100,000 simply for the ‘purpose of enriching’ him.”

a photo of Nancy New, Phil Bryant and John Davis
Attorneys for Nancy New, left, argue in court that former Gov. Phil Bryant, center, was involved in “directing, facilitating, or approving” ex-MDHS Director John Davis’s misuse of TANF funds to pay Brett Favre and to fund the volleyball project. Bryant denies the allegations. MDHS Photo
Attorneys for Nancy New, left, argue in court that former Gov. Phil Bryant, center, was involved in “directing, facilitating, or approving” ex-MDHS Director John Davis's misuse of TANF funds to pay Brett Favre and to fund the volleyball project. Bryant denies the allegations. MDHS Photo

“The evidence, however, shows that MCEC paid Favre $1,100,000 expressly to provide Favre with additional funds to use for construction of the Volleyball Facility,” the New-founded nonprofit group’s filing said. This information “directly impacts MCEC’s Defenses and Counterclaims to MCEC’s claims, including its Claim to recover $1,100,000 paid to Favre Enterprises, Inc. for construction of the Volleyball Facility,” the nonprofit argued.

MCEC reiterated that argument in its latest filing on Sept. 30, and also claimed that Bryant was involved in “directing, facilitating, or approving” the use of TANF funds to pay Favre and to fund the volleyball project. Bryant’s attorney told the court in a Sept. 23, 2022, filing that the former governor was not aware that New and Favre were seeking funds from MDHS for the volleyball project until July 2019, after the auditor began his investigation. Texts Bryant released in a Sept. 23, 2022, court filing show that he began asking staff attorneys questions about the volleyball project’s funding in July 2019.

MCEC’s latest filing notes that “MDHS has refused to seek recovery” of the funds it provided for construction of the volleyball facility. “MDHS indicates, somewhat disconcertingly, that construction of the Volleyball Facility with TANF welfare funds may have been permissible pursuant to Mississippi’s TANF plan …,” the document says. While MDHS has sought to recover the $1.1 million MCEC gave Favre, it has not sought recovery of the money for the USM volleyball stadium.

On Sept. 23, 2022, Bryant, who is not a defendant in any civil or criminal case related to the welfare scandal, issued his own filing arguing against full public disclosure, saying that he had offered to show sensitive texts to the judge with a “protective order,” but including dozens of previously undisclosed text messages. They show that Favre first texted him about the volleyball project in April 2017, saying, “I need your influence somehow to get donations and or sponsorships.”

Bryant’s filing includes late 2019 texts in which he warns Favre that New’s use of funds for the volleyball project could pose legal risks. State Auditor Shad White said his investigation that eventually went public in early 2020 began after the then-governor alerted him in June 2019 to suspicions about MDHS Director John Davis’ handling of welfare funds.

screenshot of a text message between Phil Bryant and Brett Favre
In a Sept. 4, 2019, text message included in former Gov. Phil Bryant’s Sept. 23, 2022, court filings, Bryant tells Brett Favre that “we have to follow the law” because he is “to (sic) old for Federal Prison.”

“We are going to get there,” Bryant wrote Favre on Sept. 4, 2019. “But we have to follow the law. I am to (sic) old for Federal Prison. ????.”

In text messages with then-USM President Rodney Bennett on Jan. 27, 2020, Bryant expressed frustrations with Favre’s continued demands about funding for the volleyball stadium: “Maybe he wants the State to pay off his promises.”

While the texts Bryant and MCEC released show Favre was aware that some of the funds he sought came from MDHS, they do not indicate whether or not he knew the money the former NFL star later received was TANF funds. In the Oct. 3 Axios story, Eric Herschmann argued that “Brett had no idea that welfare funds were being used or that others were involved in illegal conduct.”

On Feb. 6, 2020, a day after state prosecutors and Auditor White announced the arrests of New, Davis and four others on charges related to $77 million in illegal welfare spending, Favre was still texting Bryant about the volleyball project, the former governor’s filings show. According to those texts, Favre was seeking help from Gov. Tate Reeves, who had assumed office a month earlier, in getting the Legislature to approve money to pay off the stadium.

In July 2022, Brad Pigott, the private attorney who the state hired to lead the MDHS civil lawsuit, issued subpoenas for information on efforts to build a volleyball stadium at USM. Days later, the State fired him, and Gov. Reeves claimed credit for the decision, saying Pigott was “too focused on the political side of things.”

“He is the wrong person to represent the taxpayers because he is much more interested in chasing a political angle than he is in focusing on doing what’s best for the state,” the governor said at the Neshoba County Fair in late July.

MCEC’s legal team then issued their own subpoena in response to Pigott’s firing. The State announced its decision to hire Jones Walker, a New Orleans law firm, to take over the case in August.

‘They Are Scared to Death’

MCEC released more texts with the court filing on Sept. 30, 2022, responding to Bryant’s filing including one on July 26, 2017, in which Favre told New that USM Athletic Director Jon Gilbert was “very Leary (sic) of accepting such a large grant.” In another text included in the filing from July 29, 2017, Favre tells New that he has a “fear” that Gilbert “doesn’t except (sic) all that you and John (Davis) can allocate even if it is legally signed off on.”

“It’s obvious that you and John are tremendous assets for USM and in order for us to get ahead in the game we have to utilize you guys in every way,” Favre’s text message says. Another one from Favre to New on Aug. 2, 2017, reads: “Yeah I hear ya. They are scared to death it seems ????.”

text message screenshot
In a text message to Nancy New dated July 29, 2017, and included in MCEC’s Sept. 30, 2022, court filings, Brett Favre says officials at the University of Southern Mississippi have “concerns” about receiving money from New’s nonprofit. Image: MCEC

The full context of the conversations is not clear, however, because all three texts omit any of New’s preceding messages or responses.

The Sept. 30 MCEC filing claims that Bryant would have known that MDHS was using TANF funds for the volleyball project. “Simply stated, if Bryant, with all of his TANF experience, thought building a Volleyball Facility with TANF welfare funds was permissible, how were others, most of whom had no knowledge of, or experience with, TANF, supposed to know their expenditures were not permissible …,” the document says.

In his criminal plea agreement on April 22, 2022, Zach New explained that he “acted with” his mother “and others, at their direction, to disguise the USM construction project as a ‘lease’ as a means of circumventing the limited purpose grant’s strict prohibition against ‘brick and mortar’ construction projects in violation of Miss. Code Ann. 97-7-10.”

The disguised sublease scheme for $5 million in TANF funds gained the approval of the Mississippi attorney general, USM and the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, which oversees the State’s colleges and universities. The IHL board minutes indicated that the sublease between MCEC and the Athletic Foundation used funding obtained “via a Block Grant from the Mississippi Department of Human Services.”

The minutes said MCEC was “designed to provide schools, communities and families with educational services and training programs” and “will use the subject facilities to support their programming efforts for South Mississippi.”

‘What Makes This Country Great’

Before Eric Herschmann agreed to serve as Favre’s attorney, he served as President Donald Trump’s White House senior adviser from August 2020 until January 2021. The lawyer represented Trump in his 2020 impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Herschmann testified to the January 6th Select Committee, chaired by U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, on June 13, 2022, regarding Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

a screenshot of Eric Herschmann on a video call with a black bat mounted on the wall behind him and the word "JUSTICE" written on it in white
Brett Favre hired Eric Herschmann, a former White House Senior Adviser to ex-President Donald Trump, according to an Oct. 3, 2022, Axios report. Eric Herschmann is seen here testifying to the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol on June 13, 2022. Source: U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol

“What they were proposing, I thought, was nuts,” Eric Herschmann said. “Are you out of your effing mind? You’re completely crazy.”

Brett Favre endorsed Trump in his failed 2020 re-election bid, saying that his vote was “for what makes this country great.”

You can read our in-depth report on Brett Favre and the volleyball saga. You can also explore our timeline of events that tells the story through dozens of text messages, documents and images. Click here to see our #MSWelfareScandal archive dating back to February 2020.

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].