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Wrestler only the second person to be charged federally in Mississippi welfare scandal

Brett DiBiase, a former professional wrestler and son of WWE’s “Million Dollar Man,” pleaded guilty Thursday to a new federal charge that involves his brother, Ted “Teddy” DiBiase Jr., as an alleged co-conspirator.

The plea signals that DiBiase may act as a witness in the federal government’s ongoing investigation into the Mississippi welfare scandal, in which officials misspent or stole tens of millions of federal welfare funds under the administration of former Gov. Phil Bryant.

But Brett DiBiase, who admitted to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government, doesn’t appear poised to testify against his brother. Teddy DiBiase and the men’s parents, Ted and Melanie DiBiase, sat in the courtroom for the plea hearing Thursday. All three DiBiase men are facing charges in Mississippi Department of Human Services parallel civil lawsuit, which demands they return over $5 million in welfare funds they received.

“Teddy and Melanie and Ted Sr. love Brett and are here to support him like they always have and always will,” Teddy DiBiase’s attorney Scott Gilbert said at the courthouse.

While Teddy DiBiase has not been formally charged, federal authorities hinted they were zoning in on the older brother when they attempted to seize his $1.5 million Madison home in 2020. Teddy DiBiase was also included as an alleged co-conspirator in the bill of information that former welfare director John Davis pleaded guilty to in September.

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Both Davis and Brett DiBiase pleaded guilty to a document called a bill of information, which occurs when the defendant opts against a grand jury indictment. They are the only people who have faced federal criminal charges related to the welfare scandal.

Davis’ combined 20 felony counts come with a total possible prison sentence of decades, but his plea agreement assures he’ll only serve time for his two federal charges, which have maximum sentences of five and ten years. In exchange, Davis is also cooperating with prosecutors.

Davis was Bryant’s direct subordinate, and he could have the most knowledge of Bryant’s role in the scandal.

“As I have said before, this case is far from over and both the State of Mississippi and the U.S. Government will continue to pursue all those involved in this fraud, regardless of their position or standing,” Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens said in a statement after Brett DiBiase’s plea hearing.

Davis brought the DiBiase family into the administration of the state’s welfare agency and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for several purported purposes, such as employee training and motivational speaking, opioid abuse awareness, youth mentoring, development of a phone app to track teens, and workforce development. While they received payment up front, many of the programs never came to fruition.

These are only some of the agreements — what prosecutors have called “sham contracts” — that make up the largest public fraud case in Mississippi history. Others include the $8 million worth of welfare-funded projects inspired by NFL legend Brett Favre. In the investigative series “The Backchannel,” Mississippi Today found through private text messages that Bryant and Favre had discussed these projects, and that Favre even enticed the governor by offering shares in one of the companies that received stolen welfare funds. Favre is a civil defendant but has not been charged criminally.

READ MORE: Mississippi Today’s full “The Backchannel” investigation

Bryant has faced no charges. Instead, the official who initially investigated the case, State Auditor Shad White, whom Bryant originally appointed to his position, describes Bryant as the whistleblower of the case.

“I’m pleased that our work uncovering the largest public fraud in state history continues to result in convictions,” White said in a statement Thursday. “We will continue to assist the prosecutors, who decide who faces criminal charges.”

While the state originally arrested six people in 2020 — five of whom pleaded guilty and one who received pretrial diversion — Davis and Brett DiBiase are the only ones to be charged with federal crimes related to the welfare scandal. Nonprofit operators Nancy New and her son Zach New, whose nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center facilitated much of the theft or misspending, pleaded guilty to separate federal charges that they defrauded the Mississippi Department of Education.

Since no one has been sentenced in the either the state or federal cases, no one is currently serving a prison sentence.

Davis hired Brett DiBiase at the welfare agency in 2017, then secured for him a six-figure job at Mississippi Community Education Center, where Davis was increasingly outsourcing the TANF program. Federal prosecutors say DiBiase was not qualified for the job. In 2018, DiBiase entered a $48,000 contract with the welfare department provide opioid addiction education, but after slipping back into his own addiction, he failed to perform the service. Davis and New then used $160,000 in federal funds to pay for Brett DiBiase’s four-month stint at a luxury rehab facility in Malibu, Davis and New admitted in their state guilty pleas.

During the Thursday plea hearing, prosecutors described how they would prove the charges against Brett DiBiase. They cited a text in which Brett DiBiase asked Davis what the name of the nonprofit he worked for was.

While pleading guilty, federal prosecutors allowed Brett DiBiase to “substantially agree” with the “essential facts” of the bill of information against him, but not the prosecutor’s narrative in its entirety. He did not specify which parts he contested.

Brett DiBiase’s single conspiracy charge comes with a maximum sentence of five years and fine of up to $250,000.

“I applaud our federal partners for continuing to pursue federal charges for each and every individual responsible for stealing from Mississippi’s most needy and vulnerable citizens,” Owens said in his statement.

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This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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