The state of Mississippi doled out more than $2.1 million in welfare to a religious and wrestling nonprofit run by former professional wrestler Ted DiBiase Sr., state records show.
DiBiase, who as a wrestler dubbed "The Million Dollar Man" wore a golden championship belt adorned with dollar signs, later turned to preaching and formed a nonprofit in Mississippi called Heart of David Ministries.
Heart of David Ministries had relatively meager funds until DiBiase's son was hired as deputy administrator at the Mississippi Department of Human Services in early 2017. Both DiBiase's son Brett and the director who hired him were indicted last week as part of a massive alleged embezzlement scheme that also involved welfare money.
Heart of David Ministries — which received as much as $900,000 one year from the Mississippi Department of Human Services — describes its central mission in nonprofit filings as "religious education & training." It reported spending its 2017 grant money on "general church speaking engagements, religious conferences, school assemblies, and wrestling events."
The money came through a federal fund called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare. Six people were indicted last week as part of a scheme that allegedly stole more than $4.15 million in welfare money.
Ted DiBiase Sr. was not named in the indictments.
It is unclear precisely how Heart of David Ministries used the $2,126,739 in welfare money it received. The payments began in May 2017 and continued until the current fiscal year. As MDHS officials pumped money into DiBiase's nonprofit, the state was denying more than 98% of its individual applicants for welfare.
Heart of David was vague in describing how it would use the money. It pledged in one 2018 contract to "establish a network of partnerships, services and resources throughout Mississippi communities for faith-based and self activities."
The man in charge of the state's welfare distribution — including the grants to Heart of David — was John Davis, former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. He was among those indicted last week. Davis, who departed DHS last summer, decided to hire DiBiase's son Brett in 2017, agency spokesman Danny Blanton said.
Blanton said the contracts with Heart of David did not go through a bidding process. Davis often would "unilaterally" distribute the federal grant money without bidding, Blanton said.
The agency has since implemented a more robust committee system to review bids before awarding contracts for TANF money and other grants, Blanton said. Heart of David, he added, is no longer receiving grant money from the department.
The Clarion Ledger made several attempts to reach DiBiase and his family. A woman who answered the door at his Clinton home called the Clarion Ledger's past reporting "fictitious." She declined to comment. Attempts to reach the board of directors and other officials connected to Heart of David Ministries were unsuccessful.
DiBiase founded Heart of David Ministries 20 years ago. He has said he became a Christian minister after struggling with alcohol and drugs and cheating on his wife while on the road for wrestling events. As part of the nonprofit, he often travels to speak at churches and events.
“I was traveling the world in Lear jets and limousines. I had it all, but I had succumbed to those things on the road that take us away — the drugs, the booze and the women,” DiBiase told former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in a 2017 interview. “I had put the most important things in my life at risk to stroke my ego."
Heart of David Ministries does not appear to have filed any tax documents with the IRS for the past two years, despite receiving nearly $2 million in federal funds during that time. As of 2017, its board of directors included a former Ole Miss punter, an Ohio attorney and a Jackson youth minister.
The website for Heart of a David Ministries has few details about the organization and what it does.
Most years, Heart of David received relatively small amounts of donations and grants and no substantial money from the government. In 2013, for example, it pulled in just $5,000 in grants, a number that had grown to more than $80,000 by 2016.
But by 2017 — three months after Brett DiBiase was hired at MDHS — the nonprofit raked in $271,000 in welfare money from the agency. Brett DiBiase is also a former professional wrestler, and it's unclear what qualifications, if any, he had to be a senior official at a state agency. His salary was $95,000 and he left the job after seven months.
In 2017, when Heart of David received $271,000 from the state, the group reported spending nearly $60,000 on website design and maintenance, nearly $30,000 on travel and $13,000 on advertising, among other expenses such as wrestling events. DiBiase Sr. was paid more than $80,000 as president of the organization.
Per federal guidelines, block grants distributed through TANF are supposed to accomplish one of four specific purposes: encouraging healthy families, promoting job preparation and marriage, reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and helping needy families.
As Heart of David received its first infusion of cash from MDHS in 2017, filmmakers put the finishing touches on "The Price of Fame" — a movie about Ted DiBiase Sr.'s struggles and religious awakening.
A trailer for the film said it was made in association with Heart of David Ministries, but the producer and manager behind the film said the nonprofit was not involved. Blanton said the agency has not found signs state funds were used for the movie.
"They say that the love of money is the root of all evil," Ted DiBiase Sr. says early in the film, clad in a tuxedo and brandishing a stack of $100 bills. "Hogwash — with enough of this, you can buy anything."