26.2 C

Mississippi Welfare Funds Wound up in Ghanaian Gold Bar Scam

Mississippi welfare officials for years directed federal funds intended to serve the state’s poorest residents to suspicious causes such as a university volleyball stadium, drug rehab for a former pro wrestler, a horse ranch for a former pro football player, and dozens of other things auditors have since flagged.

Text messages obtained by Mississippi Today and a new court filing reveal that the state’s welfare funds may have been lost in another stunning plot: an African heiress gold bar scam.

For the majority of 2019, the federal welfare funds quietly flowed to a pharmaceutical startup with questionable financial prospects. The payments are one component of civil litigation the state is bringing against dozens of people or companies that misspent or improperly received welfare funds.

- Advertisement -

A pleading filed Dec. 12 in the lawsuit alleges that the company’s founder, a defendant in the case, turned around and sent at least some of that money to an investment group in Ghana, Africa, for a venture that he thought would make him rich but turned out to be a scam.

The founder estimates he lost no more than $30,000 in company funds during a time when the company was greatly funded by a welfare grant, though it’s unclear how much of that amount may have originated from the federal funds. At that time, it would have taken a family of three 15 years to receive that much through the welfare program — a monthly check of $170 — which would have been impossible because the assistance maxes out after five years.

A defense attorney for another defendant recounted painstaking details of the hoax in his lengthy court filing, which alleges former Gov. Phil Bryant was behind the welfare department’s spending, including the intertwining of a drug manufacturing project with a federally-funded anti-poverty initiative. Bryant has repeatedly denied directing any of the welfare spending in question.

Jake Vanlandingham, a neuroscientist from Florida, founded a pharmaceutical startup called Prevacus in 2012 with the idea of developing a drug to treat concussions. To build up the company, he brought on former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who himself suffered from concussions and used his platform as a famous athlete to raise awareness about the issue.

- Advertisement -

Favre and Vanlandingham would later take the project to then-Gov. Bryant and then secure $2 million in welfare funds through an economic development partnership that Bryant has tried to distance himself from since arrests in early 2020.

But before all that, the scientist became involved with an inventor who appears to have led him into a movie-like investment scam.

According to texts obtained by Mississippi Today, Vanlandingham began consulting with a man named Don Martin around 2017 to find additional funding and investors for Prevacus. Martin was based in Columbus, Ohio, and had his own concussion-related “smart helmet” venture.

He told Vanlandingham he was working on a deal with an investor named Daniella who owned land in Africa worth hundreds of millions that she was trying to sell to the government. Martin, now 71, told Mississippi Today last week that he met the supposed investor, a wealthy heiress from Ghana, when she reached out to him on Facebook.

Simultaneously, Vanlandingham said he was working to secure patents in China, to which he said he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Through 2018, Martin had promised to secure an investment of $1 million out of the Ghana deal for Prevacus. That prospect, however far-fetched, was enticing to Vanlandingham, who said he needed the money to leverage an additional $2 million from the U.S. Department of Defense.

But after months of stringing the scientist along, Martin finally told Vanlandingham he would have to first put up $25,000 to help pay for a “geological analysis” for the land that Martin said his overseas investor required.

Vanlandingham tried to find the money, but the scientist’s contacts had dried up and he was experiencing deep personal financial problems, according to the texts. He was forced to sell his family’s home to pay the taxes for Prevacus, he said, and ask his mom for a loan to get into a rental. Martin tried to put him at ease by saying things like, “I know what we are doing is pleasing to God.”

Vanlandingham tried to get Favre to secure the $25,000 through an investment in Prevacus from one of his fellow professional athletes, but they wouldn’t bite.

Then Favre suggested they ask the then-Mississippi governor for help and offer him stock in the company. Bryant bit. The men met with several others for dinner in Jackson at Walker’s Drive-In in late December of 2018.

Days later on Jan. 2, 2019, the scientist and Favre met with then-welfare agency director John Davis and nonprofit operator Nancy New. There, they struck a deal — which Bryant denies facilitating — to push $1.7 million in federal welfare grant funds to Prevacus.

“Davis conferred with Bryant concerning using MDHS grant funds to benefit Prevacus,” alleges the court document filed Dec. 12 on behalf of New’s nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center. “Bryant, Davis, and other MDHS Executives directed, approved, facilitated, and furthered the use of MDHS grant funds … to benefit Prevacus.”

Bryant, who is suing Mississippi Today for defamation and has sent threats to the news outlet for continuing to report this story, declined through an attorney to answer questions about this story or respond to allegations in the latest court filing.

The concept was for Prevacus to locate its clinical trial site and eventually the drug manufacturing plant at Tradition, a real estate development and medical corridor on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Bryant would later become vice president of the venture, and the developer, Joe Canizaro, said he paid Bryant on retainer for consulting services for years after he left office.

The grant money for Prevacus didn’t come through instantaneously. “Is the grant submitted now? Have you been pre-approved? Are you confident funds will be within 48 hours?” Martin texted anxiously. “I need to update the attorneys.”

Vanlandingham assured Martin he’d secured the grant from Mississippi and the money was on its way. Martin said he was at peace “Knowing all is good and the communication with the grant lady is specific to distribution date.”

Vanlandingham had held Martin off for months as the hopeful inventor badgered Vanlandingham for some portion of the $25,000. But once Prevacus’ first payment of $750,000 in Mississippi welfare money came in mid-January 2019, Vanlandingham almost immediately wired an unspecified amount to Martin’s company ACTEX, texts show. “Wire sent your way. Make us proud,” Vanlandingham texted Martin on Jan. 23, 2019.

Vanlandingham texted another public official, Leonard Bentz, the director of South Mississippi Planning & Development District, formerly an elected public service commissioner for the southern district, who was at the meeting with Bryant in December.

“Hey brother lots of good stuff happening for us. 1.95M with the Governors help. We are excited. Good time to get investors!!!” Vanlandingham wrote in a never-before-published text. Bentz did not respond to this text. While he initially expressed enthusiasm about potentially finding funding for Prevacus at the Mississippi Development Authority, it wasn’t too long until Bentz stopped responding to Vanladingham altogether. Bentz said he was unaware welfare agency grant funds were used on the venture.

“I don’t think the governor and them have as much involvement as everybody’s making it out to be,” Bentz told Mississippi Today last week. “It is what it is, if those people who were managing those funds didn’t do right, then it sounds like the criminal justice system is going to get them for not doing right.”

Bentz added that if the concussion drug, which Prevacus has since sold to another company, ends up being legitimate, he still wants the manufacturing facility located in Mississippi. “Tell them we’d love to sit down with them,” he said.

For two weeks after Vanlandingham sent the funds to Martin, nothing happened until Martin explained “there is serious political unrest” in Ghana where his contact was located. He told Vanlandingham that Daniella was unsafe because there had been a rash of kidnappings of wealthy people in her region. Martin often discussed the plan to fly the wealthy heiress to the states, though he denied to Mississippi Today ever having a romantic relationship with the woman.

“The plan is first focus to get her to me safe,” Martin texted.

A week or so later, Martin broke the news to Vanlandingham that Ghana Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia had been in a serious car accident that killed his driver — a story news outlets widely reported but was later debunked. Another two weeks later, Martin said Daniella was in critical condition with malaria and depression. “They say she may not make it,” Martin said.

Vanlandingham sent another wire. “Bless you Jake! Daniella is better thanks to your thoughtfulness,” Martin responded. A month later, Martin asked for another $500, because “the government did not accept” the initial payment.

“This is it for me,” Vanlandingham responded. “I’m worried shitless this is a scam. I have until April 9th to pay 300k to China.”

By mid-April, Vanlandingham was saying, “I’m dead man … I owe 336k a week ago.”

But Martin had good news: their multi-million dollar payment was approved and ready to process, they just needed “a legal permit to the holding bank” which the government required “to meet compliance on source of monies.”

They were just short $4,000. The same day, April 18, 2019, New’s nonprofit sent Prevacus another $500,000.

The texts show Vanlandingham sent Martin another wire the next day. “Money cleared,” Martin texted, and Vanlandingham responded, “I’m counting on u brother.”

When Favre asked Vanlandingham for an update on Prevacus’ finances, the scientist responded, “Not much still pushing the African money.”

Then the attorney on the ground in Ghana who they were allegedly working with to close the deal asked for a $1,000 stipend. Martin relayed his message: “Please try your best and get me the 1k to survive on I have no one here.”

In mid-May, Prevacus received another $250,000 in Mississippi grant funds. About a week later, Martin offered more good news: he could increase his investment in Prevacus to $1.5 million “if you can wire $5k to me today or pay to accelerate.” Vanlandingham sent another wire.

“Man I’m stoked. … It’s our time!!!” Vanlandingham texted. Then, after receiving no money four days later, “Yo, my brother. I’m dying!!!”

Around the same time, the court filing shows that Vanlandingham was updating Prevacus investors about “clinical patient intake site at Tradition,” telling them, “A great deal of this has been funded with the help of folks in Mississippi including the Governor.”

In early June, Martin again told Vanlandingham they needed more money to close. Daniella had found two more parcels that the government wanted to add to the real estate deal, but Vanlandingham would have to put up another $8,000 in closing costs.

“What if we don’t?” Vanlandingham asked. Martin responded, “Wow…if we don’t then according to the attorney the government can get ugly and take the land.”

A few days later, Vanlandingham said he secured another investor and sent another wire to Martin. “Make us proud brother,” he texted.

A couple weeks later, the story went that there was a hold up at the bank. While the attorney, who they called Steven, was trying to wire the money, “the Ghana Media Coalition against illegal small-scale mining came up to Steven seeing the wire was a great deal of money stopping to question him…holding him until yesterday.”

“A friend of the Minister and Steven’s is putting up $17k for attorneys fees to clear Steven and release the wire,” Martin said.

Vanlandingham responded, “This sounds positive at some level?”

Now, Martin said, they needed to find an additional $18,000 to release the hold.

Vanlandingham began researching what are called “4-1-9” fraud schemes and found an article on the website for the U.S. Embassy in Ghana describing a scenario eerily similar to what he was experiencing.

The website states, “The goal of the criminal is to delude the target into thinking that he is being drawn into a very lucrative, albeit questionable, arrangement.”

Vanlandingham texted Martin a link to the article, explaining that he’d been looking into this “fraud stuff” where “it’s always ‘urgent’ and there’s always just ‘one more’ payment.”

Martin, whom the Dec. 12 court filing described as “unflappable”, responded by acknowledging the existence of such schemes — “Yes – there is…Steven told me all about it” — but then appeared to try to distract from the issue by describing in detail an unrelated illegal mining operation.

“…especially regarding the Chinese national at the heart of illegal mining in Ghana, … Nicknamed as the “galamsey queen”, … who was arraigned in Ghana in 2017 for engaging in illegal small-scale mining at Bepotenten in the Amansie Central District in the Ashanti Region, was later deported in December 2018 by the government,” Martin wrote.

A few days later, Vanlandingham began talking about involving the FBI “if this gets hung up much longer.”

When he suggested this to the lawyer in Ghana, Vanlandingham received the response, “You can report to FBI like you said am not scared sir am not a criminal if us every thing is for real you will regret thinking other wise.”

But the scientist proceeded with them earnestly. “Worse still, Martin had begun proposing unusual transactions,” the court filing reads. “For example, Martin told Vanlandingham that ‘[w]hen Steven wires to Prevacus $2k, you will wire back the $2k to same source he sent from then you will wire me 4500 … and I will wire him 4500 – closing same day.’”

The deal was falling apart, but Martin said Daniella had a backup plan: “the gold bars her father gave her before he died she is trying to sell … she sent me a Video.”

“So to be clear as of now we are betting on selling gold bars for me just to get my money back?” Vanlandingham texted.

The same day, on July, 16, 2019, Favre texted Gov. Bryant about funding for another pharmaceutical product he said New had promised to support but had apparently dropped. “Hey Governor we are in a little bit of a crunch. … Jake can explain more but bottom line we need investors and need your direction.”

“Will get with Jake.. will help all I can,” Bryant responded.

Also the same day, Prevacus received another $400,000 in Mississippi welfare money. New had told Vanlandingham, “I will need to let Brett know that we will need to pull this from what we were hoping to help him with [volleyball]….”

That evening, Favre visited Bryant. On his way, Favre texted Bryant, “I really need your help with Nancy and Jake. I’ll be mowing your lawn for years after this!!”

“You my man… we are all in..” Bryant responded.

After seeing Favre that night, Bryant texted New, “Just left Brett Favre. Can we help him with his project. We should meet soon to see how I can make sure we keep your projects on course.”

Favre thanked Bryant and the governor responded that he had scheduled a meeting with New and arranged a call with the White House. “This can help with our concussion project,” the governor wrote.

The court filing points out, “Again, Bryant described Prevacus as ‘our … project.’”

The next day, Martin forwarded the video of the gold bars to Vanlandingham. In it, a man intentionally displays his hand with two large rings on his pinky and ring fingers as another man in a suit bends down to open a gray safe on the floor to reveal the bars.

Vanlandingham reviewed the video and responded, “You-Tube? FBI time?”

The attorney representing New’s nonprofit, who wrote the latest court filing, alleged that Vanlandingham communicated with Favre and Bryant about the Ghana situation.

“Based on information and belief, Vanlandingham spoke to Bryant concerning his investment in Ghana and its importance to Prevacus,” the filing reads.“Based on information and belief, the Prevacus funds that Vanlandingham invested in Ghana included grant funds from the State of Mississippi.”

“Good news,” Vanlandingham texted Martin on July 19, 2019. “I’m pretty good friends with the Governor and he has direct access to Stephanie Sullivan the US ambassador to Ghana. We can run communication through the Governor and get these thieves!!!!”

The latest court filing then highlights the fact that Bryant traveled to Ghana less than a month later in August 2019. Documents obtained by Mississippi Today show, however, that Bryant’s trip to Ghana and bordering Togo was planned beforehand and dealt with strengthening trade ties between Mississippi and West Africa.

“During his remarks, he (Bryant) said, a lot of investors based in Mississippi are interested in doing business in Ghana, the reason for which he is in the country to build an economic and investment bridge to facilitate future trade,” reads a press release from the American Chamber of Commerce-Ghana.

Bryant traveled to Ghana with the CEO of a south Mississippi-based product called Spartan Mosquito Eradicator to discuss selling the company’s product to the country to deal with malaria outbreaks. Vanlandingham’s attorney George Schmidt told Mississippi Today last week that Bryant did not travel to the country on behalf of Prevacus and that the timing of the trip was a coincidence.

While Bryant was in Ghana, though, he continued to consult Favre on how to secure funds from the state welfare agency for the construction of a volleyball stadium at University of Southern Mississippi — another project at the center of the scandal.

“Taking off from Ghana so this may be my last message for a while,” Bryant texted Favre Aug. 16, 2019.

Back in the states, Vanlandingham complained to Martin that, “You have put my (sic) in a fraudulent situation with my company … I gave u company money not returned on my books.”

But Vanlandingham continued to inquire on the sale of the gold bars until Martin finally told him they’d been confiscated. The scientist finally snapped, saying, “Wow. What a joke. You got played. I’ll do fbi myself brother. … Pitiful for me to have been involved … What makes me the most furious is u never raised money for Actex. It also makes me curious to your involvement.”

“U continued to take me down satans road,” Vanlandingham said.

Yet Vanlandingham still kept hoping for something to turn around. Two days later, he texted, “I’m pretty devastated please share any progress. I’m out 120k with nothing to show for it.”

Martin said Daniella reached out to a Greek investor who might be willing to put up the money to release the wire. “Wow!!!!” Vanlandingham responded. “Bring it home brother!!!”

Vanlandingham wired another $1,000, supposedly to match what the Greek investor planned to put up towards the closing costs. But then the heiress told Martin that the investor had backed out, and implored him to find the money himself. “If you really can please do honey because we are at the edge of closing,” Daniella said, according to a message Martin forwarded to Vanlandingham.

“So did I throw away another 1k?” Vanlandingham asked.

When Vanlandingham asked where the money went, Martin responded that “Daniella is tired and not well.”

This went on for several more months, despite Vanlaningham’s stated connections to authorities in Ghana. The game continued even after investigators from the State Auditor’s Office began questioning Vanlandingham as part of the Mississippi welfare scandal. After New and Davis were arrested in February of 2020 on embezzlement charges partially related to the Prevacus payments, Vanlandingham and Martin were still discussing traveling to Berlin to get $300,000 for the scientist out of the Bank of Ghana.

From the texts, it’s hard to discern if Martin, who was at least initially reluctant to alert the authorities, was complicit, or if he, too, was swindled. Asked for comment for the story, Vanlandingham said he would contact his counsel but said by text that “Dons a good guy with interesting technology.”

Vanlandingham’s lawyer, Schmidt, told Mississippi Today last week that his client’s payments to the Ghana deal totaled no more than $30,000. The lawyer said he was unaware those funds originated from the welfare program.

Martin told Mississippi Today by phone last week that he’d fallen for the scam and that he never received a dime from the Ghana investor group. He couldn’t say how much in total he’d received from Vanlandingham, all of which he said he sent to Ghana, and that also he didn’t know the money potentially originated from federal grant funds earmarked for Mississippians. But when Martin finally filed a police report, he estimated his total losses at $500,000.

An incident report Martin provided to Mississippi Today shows he reported the scam to the Powell Police Department in Ohio in May of 2022 and the local police department forwarded the case through the FBI to the authorities in Ghana. “I advised Mr. Martin that this was a known scam and he would not be likely to get his money back,” reads the officer’s report.

By the end, it had gotten worse. Martin said the Ghanaians had threatened to kidnap his daughter, and forced him to max out his credit cards purchasing products like laptops and iPhones for them. The police report shows that even after Martin initially reported the incident, the scammers told him there was a warrant for his arrest and convinced him to send $40,000 to remove the warrant. Martin said he’s in $140,000 worth of credit card debt. He also said he experienced a fire in 2021 and he’s been living in the dilapidated house, exposed to the elements with no heat or water.

“I’m totally broke,” Martin told Mississippi Today on Dec. 14.

Martin is still promoting his helmet invention and company, ACTEX, but he’s never raised the money to develop a prototype. He explained that the main reason he fell for the Ghana hoax, which went on for about three years, is his strong faith in God and the belief that he was created for a purpose.

“The way I looked at it was, God works in unusual ways. See, because ACTEX is dedicated for God’s kingdom. And it’s there to save lives and to help people. That’s part of my mission statement. So I kept thinking, ‘Well, okay.’ Because I prayed about it. (And God said), ‘Yes, this is what I want you to do.’ ‘Yes, yes, yes.’”

Martin still believes that he acted in obedience of the Lord and that “he’ll bless ACTEX and many doors will open.”

Meanwhile, the Mississippi welfare funds allegedly lost to the Ghanaians in the scam have yet to be recovered. New and her son have pleaded guilty to felonies for pushing welfare funds to Prevacus. Vanlandingham and Favre are facing civil charges. Bryant has not faced criminal or civil charges. The criminal investigation is ongoing.

While you're here, we just want to remind you of our commitment to telling the stories that matter the most.Our commitment is to our readers first before anything else.

Our Picks



Get the Stories Right in Your Inbox