JACKSON, Miss. -- Companies run by a former professional wrestler received "sham contracts" in Mississippi and misspent millions of dollars of welfare money that was supposed to help some of the neediest people in the U.S., according to a new federal indictment.
The indictment of former wrestler Ted "Teddy" DiBiase Jr., 40, of Madison, Mississippi, was unsealed Thursday, two days after it was issued by a grand jury in Jackson. During a brief court appearance Thursday, he pleaded not guilty.
"Jesus loves you, brother. God bless you, man," DiBiase told a WAPT-TV reporter outside the federal courthouse.
The indictment is the latest development in a sprawling Mississippi corruption case involving wealthy and well-connected people receiving contracts from the state Department of Human Services from 2016 to 2019.
DiBiase was a WWE wrestler in the 2000s and 2010s. The indictment accuses him and co-conspirators, including former Mississippi Department of Human Services director John Davis, of fraudulently obtaining federal money and using it for their own benefit.
According to the indictment, Davis directed funds from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to two nonprofit organizations: Family Resource Center of North Mississippi Inc., directed by Christi Webb, and Mississippi Community Education Center, directed by Nancy New. Webb and New have both pleaded guilty in the welfare fraud scandal.
Davis told Webb and New to award contracts in 2017 and 2018 to DiBiase's companies, Priceless Ventures LLC and Familiae Orientem LLC, for social services that the companies did not provide, the indictment said.
"DiBiase allegedly used these federal funds to buy a vehicle and a boat, and for the down payment on the purchase of a house, among other expenditures," the Justice Department said in a news release Thursday.
DiBiase's attorney, Scott Gilbert, issued an official statement to ESPN later in the day, saying "today was a good day" for his client.
"After being forced to sit quietly for nearly three years while opportunists took unabated swings at Teddy and his family, Teddy now has the opportunity to fight back publicly," Gilbert said. "As much as every one of us have the right to decide for ourselves whether our government is effective or prudent in the way it carries out its functions, criminalizing what, in hindsight, may be fairly characterized as poor fiscal management by the executive branch of state government is a dangerous and worrisome precedent. We are confident that when this process is finished, it will be clear that the government's theory is misguided and that their allegations cannot be substantiated, as they pertain to Teddy DiBiase."
DiBiase is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and to commit theft concerning programs receiving federal funds, six counts of wire fraud, two counts of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds and four counts of money laundering.
If convicted, he would face up to five years in prison for the conspiracy count, up to 20 years for each wire fraud count and up to 10 years for each count of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds and for each count of money laundering, the Justice Department said.
Davis pleaded guilty last year to charges tied to welfare misspending in the state's largest public corruption case, including $160,000 spent on drug rehabilitation in Malibu, California, for former pro wrestler Brett DiBiase, the brother of Teddy DiBiase.
Brett DiBiase has pleaded guilty to state and federal charges tied to the case.
The welfare misspending scandal has ensnared high-profile figures, including retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who is not facing criminal charges but is among more than three dozen defendants in a civil lawsuit that the current Human Services director filed last year to try to recover some of the welfare money wasted while Davis was in charge.
Teddy DiBiase, Brett DiBiase and their father, former pro wrestler Ted DiBiase Sr., are also defendants in the civil lawsuit. Ted DiBiase Sr. was known as the "The Million Dollar Man" while wrestling. He is a Christian evangelist and motivational speaker, and he ran Heart of David Ministries Inc., which received $1.7 million in welfare grant money in 2017 and 2018 for mentorship, marketing and other services, according to the lawsuit.
Mississippi has ranked among the poorest states in the U.S. for decades, but only a fraction of its federal welfare money has been going toward direct aid to families. Instead, the Mississippi Department of Human Services allowed well-connected people to fritter away tens of millions of welfare dollars from 2016 to 2019, according to the state auditor and state and federal prosecutors.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money helped pay for pet projects of the wealthy, including $5 million for a volleyball arena that Favre supported at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi Auditor Shad White said. Favre's daughter played volleyball at the school starting in 2017.
ESPN's Anthony Olivieri and Xuan Thai contributed to this report.