John Davis, the former head of Mississippi’s welfare agency, has pleaded guilty and agrees to testify against others

JACKSON, Miss. – The former director of a Mississippi welfare agency pleaded guilty Thursday to federal and state charges of conspiring to misappropriate tens of millions of dollars meant to help needy families in one of the poorest states in the United States, part of the largest public corruption case in state history.

In federal court, John Davis pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of theft of federally funded programs. A short time later, in state court, he pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy and 13 counts of defrauding the government.

Davis, 54, was an influential figure in the scandal, which has brought criminal charges against several people, including wrestler Ted DiBiase, known as the “Million Dollar Man,” whose Christian ministry was ordered to repay more than $720,000 in misspent welfare money. The scandal has also raised questions about retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens responded Thursday to questions about whether Bryant or Favre could be charged.

“We’re looking at all individuals who have been identified” through text messages or other means, Owens said.

As head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, Davis had direct control over federal funds that went to pet projects, such as the university’s new volleyball arena, where Favre’s daughter played the sport.

Davis was indicted on state charges in February 2020. This spring, he was again indicted by the state for his involvement in the misuse of welfare money; that charge was dropped in exchange for Davis agreeing to plead guilty to a new, shorter list. Davis also agreed to testify against others in the case, prosecutors said.

In state court Thursday, Judge Adrienne Wooten asked Davis to explain why she allowed the department to waste money on the needy.

“You were entrusted to do good by those we consider ‘the least of these,'” Wooten said. “This court is very disappointed.”

The state court charges mostly related to welfare money spent on one of Ted DiBias’ sons, Brett DiBiase, who was also a wrestler. The expenses included $160,000 for drug rehabilitation in Malibu, California; A salary of $250,000 for work for which he was not qualified; $48,000 to train Department of Human Services staff on how to identify possible drug use among people seeking help from the agency; $8,000 so he could stay at a luxury hotel in New Orleans; and more than $1,000 in first-class airfare for Davis to fly to Brett DiBiase in Malibu.

In April, the mother and son, who ran a nonprofit and an education company, pleaded guilty to state charges of misusing welfare money, including lavish gifts such as Davis’ first-class plane tickets. Nancy New and Zachary New ran a nonprofit that paid Brett DiBiase $250,000 and provided money for his drug rehab. They agreed to testify against the others.

On Sept. 12, an attorney for an organization run by Nancy and Zachary New filed in state court text messages between the retired Favre and Nancy New, Favre and Gov. Bryant, and Bryant and New.

The messages showed discussions about diverting millions of dollars in welfare money to Favre’s pet project, a volleyball facility being built at the University of Southern Mississippi. Favre, Bryant and New all attended the university, and Favre’s daughter started playing volleyball there in 2017.

In response to one of Wooten’s many questions, Davis said Brett DiBiase is his friend. Davis also said he used “very, very poor judgment” in spending public money.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” Davis said.

Wooten sentenced Davis to 90 years in prison, with 58 suspended and 32 to be served. He placed Davis under house arrest pending his federal sentencing, which was set for Feb. 2. He faces up to 15 years in prison on the federal charges.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves said he hoped Davis would make better decisions from now on.

Federal charges were filed Sept. 15 but were withheld until Wednesday. Davis dropped the charges and agreed to plead guilty.

Davis was executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services from February 2016 to July 2019. He was appointed by Bryant, a Republican.

According to the federal charges, Davis conspired with four other people, who have not been named. Court documents describe two of the alleged conspirators as CEOs of the organizations, one as the owner of two businesses and one as a resident only of Hinds County, Mississippi. The capital city of Jackson is in Hinds County.

The conspiracy charges say one organization paid nearly $498,000 to one company in June 2018. A few days later, that company entered into a $1.1 million contract with another company “allegedly in exchange for creating a program to serve inner-city youth.” The charges also say the same organization paid the company $700,000 that summer in a youth program contract.

The theft charges say Davis misused more than $10,000 in federal grants.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.