JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – The former head of the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) pled guilty on Thursday for conspiring to defraud the State of Mississippi of millions of dollars in federal funds.
John Davis, of Jackson, appeared in federal court to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of fraud against the government. During the hearing, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves asked several questions about whether Davis understood the charges to which he was pleading guilty.
“Yes, sir,” Davis responded each time.
According to court documents, Davis and his co-conspirators fraudulently obtained and misused federal funds – including funds from two programs, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) – for their personal use and benefit.
Prosecutors said Davis directed MDHS to provide 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. In addition, Davis caused the nonprofit organizations to disburse full or almost-full payments pursuant to those sham contracts at or near the beginning of the contract periods.
Davis was indicted on state charges in February 2020. He was re-indicted this spring on state charges that he participated in misusing welfare money, including using some to send a former pro wrestler to a luxury drug rehab facility.
The federal charges were handed down Sept. 15, but remained sealed until Wednesday. Federal court records show Davis appeared before a magistrate judge Wednesday, and that Davis waived indictment and agreed to be prosecuted under the federal charges.
Davis was executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services from February 2016 through July 2019. He was appointed to the job by then-Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican.
The federal charges say Davis conspired with four other people, who are not named. Court documents describe two of the alleged conspirators as executive directors of organizations, one as the owner of two companies and one only as a resident of Hinds County, Mississippi. The capital city of Jackson is in Hinds County.
The conspiracy charges say one of the organizations paid nearly $498,000 to one of the companies in June 2018. A few days later, that company entered a $1.1 million contract with the other company “purportedly in exchange for creating a program to serve inner-city youth.” The charges also say the same organization paid $700,000 that summer to the company with the youth program contract.
The theft charges say Davis misused federal grants of more than $10,000.
The conspiracy charge is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and the theft charge carries up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Davis is scheduled to be sentenced on February 2, 2023, for the federal charges and faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison for the conspiracy count and 10 years in prison for the theft concerning programs receiving federal funds count.
As for the state charges, Davis pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy and 13 counts of fraud against the government. Judge Adrienne Wooten sentenced Davis to spend 32 years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. She also ordered him to pay restitution.
In April, a mother and son who ran a nonprofit organization and an education company pleaded guilty to state charges of misusing welfare money, including on lavish gifts such as first-class airfare for Davis. Nancy New and Zachary New agreed to testify against others.
In a state court filing Sept. 12, an attorney for one of the News’ organizations listed text messages between retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre and Nancy New, between Favre and Bryant and between Bryant and New.
The messages showed discussions about millions of dollars in welfare money being directed to a pet project of Favre — 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. Favre and Bryant have not been charged in the welfare misspending case.
After the announcement, Governor Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) said, “After this guilty plea, it is abundantly clear that John Davis and his alleged co-conspirators abused the trust of taxpayers. It is just that there be consequences for anyone who defrauds the people that we are tasked to serve.”
MDHS also released a statement about the guilty plea.
Along with the previous guilty pleas, today’s guilty pleas are another important step in continuing the work of moving the Mississippi Department of Human Services forward in serving the residents of Mississippi who, along with the agency, are victims of the largest corruption case in Mississippi history.
These individuals enriched themselves at the expense of Mississippi’s neediest residents.
As Judge Reeves stated during the hearing, the Mississippi Department of Human Services representation in the courtroom as the victim agency underscores that the individuals who perpetrated these fraudulent and illegal acts do not represent the values of MDHS.
MDHS is proud of the public service of hundreds of dedicated employees who faithfully serve Mississippians daily. We all are working to fulfill our commitment to serve the neediest families in Mississippi and restoring the trust of those we serve.
This case is far from over; MDHS continues cooperating with state and federal investigators to identify and recoup misspent taxpayer funds. Our outside counsel at Jones-Walker continues their diligent work to recover these misspent funds from all parties who improperly received money intended to benefit the least among us.MDHS
The Associated Press contributed to this report.