Gov. Tim Walz reacts to the state budget forecast on Dec. 7, 2021. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz found out about suspicious activity in a child food aid program — now the subject of a massive federal law enforcement dragnet — around the time that local nonprofit Feeding Our Future sued the state Department of Education in November 2020, his office told the Reformer Friday.
Republicans have sought to pin blame for the scandal on the first-term DFL governor and Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office represented the state as it sought to stop the fraud. Scott Jensen, Walz’s GOP challenger, earlier this week called for an investigation into Walz’s response to the alleged fraud and released an anti-fraud plan of his own Thursday.
“What did Governor Walz know and when did he learn it?” Jensen said at the press conference. “Who is he trying to protect?”
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said last week that the individuals indicted in the Feeding Our Future case began their scheme in April 2020, and over time misappropriated $250 million in funds, buying luxury goods, cars and real estate.
In an interview with the Reformer on Thursday, Walz said he was verbally briefed about suspicious activity in the program in late April or early May of 2020 — “very early in the program,” Walz said.
A spokesperson for the governor later told the Reformer that Walz misspoke and he found out when MDE alerted federal authorities. MDE first reached out to officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture with concerns about the nonprofit’s rapid growth in the summer of 2020.
“The governor was aware of issues and concerns related to the program in 2020, when MDE raised those concerns with the federal government and (Feeding Our Future) sued MDE,” the governor’s office said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
The spokesperson then followed up again to clarify that Walz found out after Feeding Our Future filed a lawsuit in November 2020.
MDE administered and oversaw the funds and allocated them to sponsoring agencies like Feeding Our Future, which then in turn paid the money to various meal distributors across the state.
In the fall of 2020, MDE stopped processing new applications for Feeding Our Future, alarmed by the large number of applications and reimbursement claims. The nonprofit in turn sued MDE, alleging racial discrimination.
About four months later, MDE notified Feeding Our Future it had become aware of claims that the nonprofit’s fund allocations weren’t being used to purchase and distribute meals.
MDE said it would stop allocating funds to the nonprofit until they could verify the claims, and Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann called a hearing in April. Guthmann told MDE he thought the agency was not legally allowed to halt payments to Feeding Our Future. However, that issue was outside the purview of the lawsuit, which centered on applications for new sites. After that hearing, MDE resumed payments as it alerted the FBI.
Walz last week attacked Guthmann and incorrectly stated that the judge had issued an order for the state to resume payments. In a rare move, Guthmann issued his own statement and said the governor was incorrect, and that he did not order MDE to resume payments but rather the agency did so of its own accord.
Walz told the Reformer that he disagreed with Guthmann’s decision, but he respects the judge, the judicial branch and the principle of the separation of powers.
Walz and Ellison have also said they were limited in what they could say in the past two years because they didn’t want to interfere with the federal investigation that led to the recent wave of indictments. Without their cooperation, they say, the investigation may not have ever launched.
Walz said in the Reformer interview that he was deeply concerned about food security for children early in the pandemic.
“I was losing sleep in early 2020 about food security for our kids,” Walz said. “We were doing such good work — from our schools, to Second Harvest Heartland to the Department of (Agriculture), that it was just mind boggling to me that someone could be stealing money from them.”
Feeding Our Future’s growth exploded thanks to the federal pandemic program: In 2019, the company received $3.4 million from the program; two years later the nonprofit received nearly $198 million, according to the FBI’s January 2022 affidavit.
Walz said once the FBI completes its investigation, the state can create a plan to prevent such fraud from happening again.
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