Minnesota Governor Tim Walz on Monday faced criticism after a judge disputed his administration’s claim that the judge prevented it from cutting off payments to Feeding Our Future, which is the target of a US$250 million federal fraud case.
Forty-nine people have been charged in the alleged scheme to exploit COVID-19 pandemic funding and steal US$250 million from federal programs designed to provide low-income children with nutritious meals.
The newest defendant was scheduled to leave the US for Turkey, but was arrested Monday by the FBI at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Many of the defendants are accused of creating companies that falsely claimed to be offering food to tens of thousands of children across Minnesota then seeking reimbursement for meals through the US Department of Agriculture’s nutrition programs, which are administered in Minnesota by the state Department of Education (MDE).
Prosecutors said that the defendants used the money to buy luxury vehicles, property and jewelry.
The Republican candidates for state governor, attorney general and auditor — Scott Jensen, Jim Schultz and Ryan Wilson — said that Walz and other top Democrats should have done more to stop the alleged fraud before it became what federal prosecutors last week called the largest pandemic-related fraud in the country.
However, the two political parties disagree about how far Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann went toward compelling the education department to resume the payments to Feeding Our Future.
A court statement issued on Friday said that Guthmann “never issued an order” for the state administration to resume payments, but the department produced a hearing transcript showing that he threatened to hold one attorney in contempt if the state failed to restore the flow of funds.
Jensen called for an independent investigation to report back before he and Walz hold their next debate on Oct. 18.
“What did Governor Walz know? When did he learn what he knew? When did he decide to use a district court judge as a scapegoat for his administration and the Department of Education?” Jensen asked at a news conference. “Who is he trying to protect?”
The Walz administration denied the allegations.
“MDE blew the whistle on this fraud scheme. They detected it early and worked diligently to stop it,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “MDE repeatedly urged the federal government to investigate and they partnered with the FBI to ensure accountability — even as they fought Feeding Our Future’s sham lawsuit in court.”
Walz on Thursday said that the education department’s hands were tied by a court order for it to resume the food program payments, despite the concerns the state had raised.
The FBI asked the state to continue the reimbursements while its investigation continued, he said.
Jensen said it was unlikely that the FBI would have instructed the state to continue to make millions of dollars in fraudulent payments and called on the agency to clarify.
Cyndi Barrington, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, said the bureau does not comment on ongoing investigations.
The state’s court system issued a statement that was authorized by Guthmann, saying he never ordered the education department to resume payments to Feeding Our Future.
However, the department said later on Friday that the judge left it no choice.
“The court made it clear that if MDE were to continue the legal fight to withhold payments, MDE would incur sanctions and legal penalties,” the department said in a statement.
The leader of the Republican majority in the Minnesota Senate, Jeremy Miller, on Monday echoed Jensen’s call for Minnesota Education Commissioner Heather Mueller to resign.
“Based on Judge Guthmann’s statement, Governor Walz and Commissioner Mueller have been dishonest with the public about the legal proceedings and failed to protect taxpayer dollars from the biggest instance of COVID-related fraud in the country,” Miller said in a statement.
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