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In Mississippi, Welfare for the Well Connected as a Scandal Spreads

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​As he grew to become additional enmeshed in a scheme that diverted federal welfare cash to construct a volleyball stadium that value greater than $5 million on the College of Southern Mississippi, the previous soccer star Brett Favre texted a query to the ​head of a nonprofit doling out funds meant to go to welfare recipients within the nation’s poorest state.

“In the event you have been to pay me,” he wrote in 2017 of a $1.1 million proposal for promotional efforts that may truly be funneled towards constructing the stadium, “is there any manner the media may discover out the place it got here from and the way a lot?” A number of years of textual content messages in regards to the undertaking got here to gentle once they have been filed in courtroom final week and have been first revealed by Mississippi Immediately, the small nonprofit information web site that has constantly led reporting on the story.

Way over that cost has been uncovered in a billowing scandal that has stretched significantly past Mr. Favre. A motley assortment of political appointees, former soccer stars, onetime skilled wrestlers, enterprise figures and numerous associates of the state’s former Republican governor all stand accused of pocketing or misusing cash earmarked for needy households.

On Thursday, John Davis, who served as government director of the Mississippi Division of Human Companies underneath former Gov. Phil Bryant, pleaded responsible to each federal and state costs of embezzling federal welfare funds. Tens of millions of {dollars} have been transferred to associates and family members, courtroom paperwork say.

In accordance with a lawsuit filed by the state in Might, round $5 million was diverted to Ted DiBiase, a flamboyant retired wrestler as soon as often known as “The Million Greenback Man,” and two of his sons, in addition to numerous entities linked to them, together with a ministry. A lot of the cash went to fictitious companies, bogus jobs, first-class journey preparations and even one son’s keep at a luxurious rehab heart in Malibu, Calif., that value $160,000, the swimsuit claims.

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Equally, the state claims that Marcus Dupree, a former highschool soccer phenom {and professional} operating again, who was paid to behave as a celeb endorser and motivational speaker, didn’t carry out any contractual companies towards the $371,000 he acquired to buy and reside in a sprawling residence with a swimming pool and adjoining horse pastures in a gated neighborhood.

Mr. Favre, who earned greater than $140 million in his Corridor of Fame profession, was paid $1.1 million for speeches he by no means gave, the swimsuit stated. He additionally orchestrated greater than $2 million in authorities funds being channeled to a biotechnology start-up during which he had invested, in accordance with the swimsuit.

Not one of the three have been charged with crimes and all have denied wrongdoing. However even essentially the most cynical observers in Mississippi have been dumbfounded by the brazenness of the exercise within the allegations and the way deeply it mirrored the inequities baked into the historical past of a state with the nation’s highest poverty price.

“The profiteering off the poor is ongoing,” Consultant Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, stated. He added, “It’s like Robin Hood in reverse — you are taking from the poor and provides to the wealthy.”

The accusations about fraudulent grants have been all specified by the lawsuit filed in Might towards 38 people and organizations, which sought the compensation of greater than $24 million. Fairly than serving to the poor, the federal welfare program often known as Short-term Help for Needy Households, or TANF, appeared to turn out to be a slush fund for pet tasks and private achieve.

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The state alleges that the cash was siphoned off for companies that have been usually by no means offered and in any case, would have failed to satisfy each federal and state laws governing their dispersal. The case follows a state audit launched in Might 2020 suggesting that as a lot as $94 million of TANF funds may need gone astray.

Six individuals have been arrested in February 2020 on costs of misusing public funds in what the state auditor, Shad White, has described as one of many largest public corruption instances in Mississippi’s historical past. Most of them have pleaded responsible; Jody E. Owens II, the Hinds County district legal professional, stated a joint inquiry by federal and state investigators may produce costs towards extra individuals.

Legal professionals for the senior Mr. DiBiase and Mr. Dupree didn’t reply to requests for remark. Michael T. Dawkins, the lawyer representing Mr. DiBiase and his Coronary heart of David Ministries stated in courtroom papers that his shoppers had acted legally.

After the costs first emerged, a lawyer for Mr. Dupree, J. Matthew Eichelberger, launched a letter saying his shopper had earned the cash.

Bud Holmes, Mr. Favre’s lawyer, didn’t return a request for remark. Each he and Mr. Favre have stated repeatedly that the soccer legend was not conscious that the funds got here from a federal welfare program.

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In terms of primary help, Mississippi ranks forty seventh amongst U.S. states within the sum of money it spends, stated Aditi Shrivastava, a senior coverage analyst with the Heart on Finances and Coverage Priorities in Washington. Figures compiled by the middle point out that the median most profit nationally, which few individuals are paid, was $498 month-to-month in July 2021, in contrast with $260 in Mississippi.

Specialists stated the fraud was rooted in modifications enacted in such packages in 1996, when money advantages paid to poor households have been changed by block grants issued to states. They’re purported to distribute the cash in accordance with 4 federal pointers that emphasize shifting poor households towards regular employment, however in observe states and governors are given broad leeway.

Mockingly, the Mississippi Legislature additionally added a fifth guideline, “to forestall fraud and abuse.” That was directed at recipients of the help, however the state now alleges that the malefactors turned out to incorporate the general public officers operating this system.

Nancy New and her son Zach New, who ran a nonprofit instructional group known as the Mississippi Group Schooling Heart, pleaded responsible final spring to costs of misusing TANF funds.

The textual content messages that have been revealed in courtroom paperwork steered that former Gov. Bryant, working with Ms. New, helped Mr. Favre get hold of federal cash for a state-of-the-art volleyball facility to be constructed at Mr. Bryant’s and Mr. Favre’s alma mater, the College of Southern Mississippi, the place Mr. Favre’s daughter performed the game.

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“Can we assist him together with his undertaking?” Mr. Bryant wrote in a July 2019 textual content to Ms. New, noting that he had simply talked to Mr. Favre.

In 2020, the state auditor’s report stated the college acquired $5 million for a bogus lease to make use of all its athletic services — together with the volleyball heart, which was not but constructed — for packages for the poor.

The cash, paid by the Mississippi Division of Human Companies by way of the Information’ nonprofit group, truly went towards development, the audit stated. Final April, Mr. New pleaded responsible to transferring $4 million from TANF funds, which the federal authorities bars from utilizing for “brick and mortar” tasks, to the college.

The texts launched final week appeared to point that the $1.1 million welfare contract to advertise the middle’s packages — work that was by no means carried out — was one other solution to divert cash to the stadium.

Within the August 2017 textual content dialog about concealing the supply of the cash meant for the power, Ms. New assured Mr. Favre that she understood he was “uneasy,” however that that form of data was by no means publicized. The following day, she wrote: “Wow, simply received off the telephone with Phil Bryant! He’s on board with us! We’ll get this executed!”

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William M. Quin II, a lawyer for Mr. Bryant, stated the textual content messages didn’t help the argument that the governor had inspired and coached Mr. Favre and state officers on learn how to get hold of the grant. “The allegation is patently false,” he stated in an emailed assertion, dismissing the textual content messages as “cherry-picked.” Mr. Bryant has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The volleyball stadium was not truly a part of the lawsuit. Final July, after J. Brad Pigott, a former U.S. legal professional employed by the state to assist recoup the misplaced hundreds of thousands, started subpoenaing details about what had occurred on the college, he was dismissed. Mr. Favre has repaid the state $1.1 million — although the state auditor has stated he nonetheless owes $228,000 in curiosity.

Organizations that assist the poor have lengthy fearful that block grants awarded by governors will be an invite for abuse, stated Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, the director of the southern regional workplace of the Youngsters’s Protection Fund.

“There was a hazard of that cash changing into a slush fund effectively earlier than this debacle,” she stated.

In Mississippi, she and others stated, the issue is compounded by the truth that the state’s Republican governors and legislatures of current years have been ideologically against authorities packages designed to assist the poor. “They most likely thought that it was humorous to be utilizing cash that was purported to go — of their minds — to individuals who didn’t deserve it,” she stated of the accused officers.

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Mississippi is one in all 12 states that has refused to increase Medicaid and has often turned down federal cash meant to enhance medical remedy, housing and youngster care, amongst different points, Mr. Thompson, the congressman, famous. On the finish of 2020, Mississippi had $47 million in unspent TANF funds, Ms. Shrivastava stated.

On the College of Southern Mississippi, school members say the varsity prides itself in admitting first-generation college students from the form of households the cash was meant to assist. “Nobody may be very pleased about it,” Denis Wiesenburg, the college senate president and a professor of marine science, stated of the current undesirable consideration. “We acknowledge that it has tarnished the popularity of the college.”

The scandal has seeped out over years now, largely due to the dogged reporting by Mississippi Immediately. However that doesn’t boring the anger of these most affected.

Carol Burnett, the chief director of the Mississippi Low-Earnings Baby Care Initiative, a nonprofit group, stated individuals have been appalled that tens of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} that ought to have gone towards initiatives like improved public transportation or youngster take care of the working poor have been apparently handed out to wealthy political cronies as an alternative. “They see this cash that’s meant to assist individuals like them that’s so misused and redirected to individuals who don’t need assistance,” she stated. “It’s infuriating.”

Jenny Vrentas contributed reporting.

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Education

Republican-led States Sue to Block Biden’s Plan to Erase Student Loan Debt

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WASHINGTON — Six Republican-led states took authorized motion Thursday to dam President Biden from wiping away billions of {dollars} in scholar mortgage debt, even because the administration tried to keep away from a court docket problem by decreasing the variety of folks eligible for aid.

A lawsuit filed in federal court docket by Leslie Rutledge, the Republican legal professional normal of Arkansas, accuses Mr. Biden of vastly overstepping his authority final month when he introduced the federal government would forgive as a lot as $20,000 in scholar mortgage debt, a far-reaching transfer that the nonpartisan Congressional Finances Workplace estimated might value $400 billion over the course of the subsequent three a long time.

“President Biden’s illegal political play places the self-wrought college-loan debt on the backs of thousands and thousands of hardworking People who’re struggling to pay their utility payments and residential loans within the midst of Biden’s inflation,” Ms. Rutledge mentioned in an announcement on Thursday. “President Biden doesn’t have the ability to arbitrarily erase the faculty debt of adults who selected to take out these loans.”

The states of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, South Carolina and Nebraska joined the lawsuit, which assaults Mr. Biden’s declare that the debt aid is justified by a federal legislation authorizing actions throughout a well being emergency just like the coronavirus pandemic. The Republican officers in these states observe that Mr. Biden just lately declared the pandemic to be over in an interview with “60 Minutes” on CBS.

Abdullah Hasan, a White Home spokesman, mentioned the lawsuit is making an attempt to cease Mr. Biden from offering much-needed aid to people who find themselves struggling within the wake of the pandemic.

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“Republican officers from these six states are standing with particular pursuits and preventing to cease aid for debtors buried below mountains of debt,” Mr. Hasan mentioned. “The president and his administration are lawfully giving working- and middle-class households respiratory room as they recuperate from the pandemic and put together to renew mortgage funds in January.”

The lawsuit, first reported by The Related Press, is the second try this week to close down the mortgage forgiveness program, which is without doubt one of the president’s main achievements throughout practically two years in workplace. On Tuesday, a conservative authorized group filed a lawsuit in search of to dam debt cancellation, saying this system would pressure folks to pay taxes on the debt that was forgiven.

Earlier than the most recent authorized challenges, the Schooling Division on Thursday introduced that it will not forgive the debt for college kids with federal scholar loans which can be held by non-public firms. Eliminating eligibility for these college students might make it tougher for the Republican attorneys normal to efficiently assault all the program in court docket.

There are solely about 770,000 individuals who maintain that form of debt, out of about 40 million who would nonetheless have the ability to apply for aid, based on officers. College students with federal scholar loans could be eligible for $10,000 in aid, whereas these with Pell grants for folks from low-income households would have the ability to apply for $20,000 in debt cancellation.

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Young and Homeless in Rural America

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Each college in Plantz’s district has containers of provides — kids’s underwear, toiletries, promenade attire — and he or she is all the time in search of methods to destigmatize the method of getting these gadgets to the scholars who want them. At River Valley Excessive, they’re saved within the Raider Room (named for the college’s mascot), which additionally has a bathe. She brings youngsters out and in to do numerous school-related chores in order that visiting the room just isn’t seen as an indication of poverty. When one in every of her college students, a cheerleader, stopped coming to high school as a result of her unstable housing state of affairs made it inconceivable to do her hair within the morning, Plantz purchased her a $14 hair straightener from Walgreens and put it within the Raider Room. “Get off the bus, go straight to the bathe and do your hair there,” she mentioned. Final December, after a mom confirmed up at a district workplace saying her boyfriend had set fireplace to all the pieces she owned, together with the papers she would wish to register her three kids, Plantz went into her workplace, bought her purse and took the mom to Walmart: She purchased two outfits and a coat for every baby so they might come to high school the following day. She signed up one of many kids for counseling and left the mother with some fuel playing cards and an inventory of attainable residence leases.

The McKinney-Vento regulation helps small annual grants to assist with these sorts of efforts, however most districts don’t obtain them; the applying course of could be cumbersome. Along with requiring college districts to nominate a liaison, the regulation is meant to remove obstacles to schooling by waiving deal with necessities for enrollment or permitting college students to stay of their college of origin if their household is compelled to relocate. However these provisions haven’t been extensively understood or evenly enforced.

There’s little or no knowledge monitoring homelessness in rural areas across the nation, and it’s the McKinney-​Vento liaisons who most frequently, if typically imperfectly, fill the hole. In 2018, Montana, for instance, skilled a 145 p.c enhance within the variety of homeless college students not as a result of many extra youngsters abruptly turned homeless however as a result of a brand new statewide McKinney-Vento coordinator upped her efforts. The district proper subsequent to Plantz’s, which is demographically comparable, nonetheless reviews fewer than 10 homeless college students a 12 months. And Ohio as an entire reported that 1.8 p.c of its college students skilled homelessness within the 2019-20 college 12 months, a quantity that Valerie Kunze, assistant director of weak youth packages for the Ohio Division of Schooling, acknowledges is an undercount. “You will have locations reporting 0 p.c, and there’s simply no 0 p.c,” she informed me.

However even with its many flaws and inconsistencies, the reporting by McKinney-Vento liaisons, aggregated by the Division of Schooling, represents an important and uncommon effort to quantify the issue of pupil homelessness, particularly in rural areas. The D.O.E. definition of homelessness is broader than the one utilized by, for example, the Division of Housing and City Growth, and higher capable of seize what homelessness normally appears like for rural youth and households — Blake’s household residing in a cramped camper on a hill or households doubled up typically in unsafe conditions hidden from sight — versus residing on a avenue or in a shelter. In 2019, the final 12 months of reporting earlier than the pandemic, HUD’s annual “cut-off date” depend on a single evening discovered 53,692 dad and mom and kids experiencing homelessness. Over the course of the identical college 12 months, the D.O.E., utilizing knowledge from McKinney-Vento liaisons, counted 1.4 million school-age kids as homeless.

When faculties shut down throughout Covid, so did the first manner of figuring out and helping kids experiencing homelessness. A nationwide survey of McKinney-Vento liaisons carried out by Faculty Home Connection and the College of Michigan in 2020 estimated that roughly 420,000 homeless college students had merely disappeared from the rolls, untracked and unassisted.

That quantity was a part of the explanation Congress allotted $800 million in help for homeless college students as a part of the American Restoration Plan Act, an unprecedented quantity. For the primary time, many college districts that by no means acquired McKinney-Vento grants discovered themselves with a sudden, if short-term, infusion of assets and a wider mandate for how one can use them. Some faculties have purchased blocks of motel rooms, and others have employed consultants to assist households navigate the housing system. When the primary of the 2 promised rounds of ARPA funding made its technique to Plantz’s district within the spring, she thought of numerous initiatives with a watch to one thing that might nonetheless be round when the funding ran out, deciding on new provide shelving for garments and toiletries and washing machines that she might put in a discreet location. “Children have used those within the subject home, however they should ask permission, and it’s very conspicuous,” she mentioned.

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Lisa Brooks, director of youth initiatives on the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, additionally had the long run in thoughts. Together with her group’s ARPA cash, she started a program to coach college staffs immediately on how one can help college students experiencing homelessness. For her, the chance to broaden capability on that scale was thrilling, however she apprehensive what would occur when the cash ran out. ‘’This was a response to at least one disaster — the pandemic — however the nationwide disaster of homeless college students is ongoing,” Brooks mentioned. “The Sandra mannequin just isn’t sustainable. It might’t be that there’s only one champion within the district.”

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Majority of Florida Public Schools Cancel Classes Ahead of Hurricane Ian

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As Hurricane Ian drew nearer to Florida, colleges and universities throughout the state continued to announce closures and sophistication cancellations for the week.

Greater than 50 of the state’s 76 college districts canceled lessons, many by way of Friday, based on the Florida Division of Training, which repeatedly up to date its listing as college districts supplied information. About 30 schools and universities additionally mentioned they’d shut their campuses and cancel lessons.

Florida has 5 of the ten largest public college districts in america — all of which introduced closures. They included Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Palm Seaside counties.

Many public colleges within the state turned evacuation shelters, so it was unclear once they could be accessible once more for college kids.

The Manatee County district, positioned south of Tampa on the Gulf Coast and alongside the trail of the hurricane, closed colleges Tuesday till additional discover. The varsity district and the county’s emergency administration arrange 17 shelters, the place residents started to maneuver into on Tuesday.

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SAT testing was rescheduled in Flagler County from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15 and lessons had been canceled within the district, which is on Florida’s east coast, south of St. Augustine.

“This isn’t a call we take calmly, however we wish to give our households sufficient time to organize their houses for this storm or evacuate the realm in the event that they really feel that’s the best choice for them,” mentioned Cathy Mittelstadt, the Flagler Faculties’ superintendent. “We additionally want to make use of this time to organize the emergency shelter area our campuses supply, ought to folks be requested to evacuate.”

A Florida State College alert mentioned college students who select to remain in Tallahassee might be suggested to observe a shelter-in-place protocol. Boxed meals could be delivered to the residence halls earlier than the storm.

On the College of South Florida, college students dwelling in residence halls within the St. Petersburg location had been relocated to the Tampa campus if they didn’t have various housing choices.

The College of Florida canceled all lessons, together with on-line, from Wednesday by way of Friday.

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The College of Miami, a non-public college, mentioned lessons on its Coral Gables and Marine campuses would transfer on-line, in addition to some from its medical campus. Eating halls and athletics would proceed to function usually.

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