USM says it’s ‘deeply troubled’ by TANF funds used to build volleyball gym

University does not state whether it will pay the funds back


Sean Smith

The USM Volleyball Team plays a recent match at the Wellness Center on the Hattiesburg campus. | Sean Smith, SM2 Photo Editor

The University of Southern Mississippi stated it was “deeply troubled” by the situation involving the volleyball gym that was built with welfare and TANF funds for needy families. In a statement released Thursday morning, the university stated it was “committed to seeking ways for campus facilities to be utilized for the benefit of Mississippi families and individuals in the spirit of the original agreement.” 

The university does not mention whether it will pay the funds back. 

The university released a letter of approval from the Department of Human Services and the five-year lease in its statement. The university received a one-time payment of $5 million for rent from Mississippi Community Education Center for the lease. Additionally, the university stated it has provided “hundreds of pages of public records to requestors seeking information about the Wellness Center” and will continue to comply with requests for information. 

The university stated that it will “fully cooperate” with ongoing investigative processes but will not release any more statements due to ongoing investigations.

According to the statement, in 2017, with the approval of the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS), the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation signed a five-year agreement with the Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC) for its use of existing athletic facilities and future use of the then to-be-constructed Wellness Center, for proposed MCEC programming and services to benefit thousands of eligible individuals in south Mississippi.

“The University and the Athletic Foundation engaged in this agreement in good faith, following thorough due diligence by outside legal counsel, and after multiple assurances from officials at the highest levels of MDHS,” the university said in a statement. “Unfortunately, that due diligence did not and could not uncover the alleged fraud by the MDHS grant fiduciaries that was reported nearly two years after the Athletic Foundation signed the agreement with MCEC. Although MCEC shared projections of planned programming with the University, its actual utilization of the facilities did not align with those projections.”

According to the statement, even though our facilities are owned by the state, the University does not have the autonomy to provide programs, services, or other resources to another agency without specific legal guidance and authorization. 

“Therefore, to the extent allowed by law, the university will make available to MDHS its campus facilities (including, but not limited to, the Wellness Center) for a five-year term to assist MDHS with its mission of serving the people of south Mississippi,” the university said in a statement. “It is hoped that the proposed partnership with MDHS will prove so successful that the relationship will extend well beyond the initial 5-year term.”

The university stated that If approved, there is the potential for this proposal to create exciting opportunities for collaborative pursuits between MDHS and existing University clinical and academic programs, with guidance and input from faculty across disciplines. 

“The university community can offer great help to MDHS as it works to accomplish its mission of serving families with the greatest need, and the University looks forward to working with MDHS and others to develop a path forward – which may take time,” the university said in a statement. “Legal considerations beyond the University’s control could change the shape and content of the proposal, so the advice and direction of the appropriate authorities must guide the University’s next steps.”

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