Minnesota governor resists criticism of food fraud

Street. POOL, Minnesota (Associated Press) – Democratic Governor Tim Walz on Thursday dismissed critics who said his administration should have done more to thwart what federal prosecutors described as a plan to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to defraud the US government. At least 250 million dollars.

Walz said the Minnesota Department of Education’s hands were tied by a court order to resume food program payments despite concerns raised by the state. He said the FBI has asked the state to keep paying while the investigation continues.

Federal authorities on Tuesday announced charges against 48 people in Minnesota for conspiracy and other charges in what they said was the largest pandemic-related fraud scheme to date. Many of the companies that claim to cater to low-income children have been sponsored by a non-profit organization called Feeding Our Future.

The defendants allegedly set up companies that claimed to provide meals to tens of thousands of children across the state of Minnesota, then sought compensation through the USDA’s Feeding Our Future program. But prosecutors said few meals had already been served and the defendants had spent the money on luxury cars, property and jewellery. The government has so far recovered $50 million.

“We caught this fraud. We caught it very early. We have alerted the right people,” Walz said at a press conference in his first detailed public remarks on the case. “We have been taken to court. We have been sued. We were threatened with going to prison. We stuck with it.”

The governor said his administration detected irregularities “very early on” and alerted the USDA during President Donald Trump’s administration. Walz said he could not remember precisely when he first learned of the suspicions.

Court filings indicate that Feeding Our Future applied to become a sponsor of the program in Spring 2020, and that the state agency began trying to crack down in October 2020. Walz said a “review” was needed as to why the USDA did not take on the state mission. Seriously when the alarm sounded for the first time. The state agency asserted that its concerns were not taken seriously until it reached out to the FBI in April of 2021. The FBI eventually executed a series of search warrants in January 2022 and released partial information about the investigation, effectively shutting down the alleged scheme.

Wales also noted that Ramsey County Judge John Guthman in April 2021 ordered the state to resume payments and ruled the state agency in contempt of court. Walz suggested that the judge’s order was too expensive.

“Most of the money stayed after we were forced to keep paying, not before,” he said.

Walz said the FBI only started under President Joe Biden. But he said Education Commissioner Heather Mueller has been ordered by the FBI not to say anything that could jeopardize the investigation.

“My team and I couldn’t say anything because the FBI was actively investigating and we were told not to,” he said.

Walz also said he would like an investigation into the judge’s order to resume payments, though he did not say who should conduct that investigation. The judiciary is independent under the constitutional separation of powers.

“I was silent,” said the governor. “Unbelievable that this judgment would come down, I didn’t really know what to say. We obviously had to respect it. … I wouldn’t have believed in a million years that they would rule in this way.”

Republicans were quick to condemn the Walz administration for not doing more—and before that—to stop the scheme, and for not appealing a judge’s order to resume payments. They also tried to blame Attorney General Keith Ellison and state auditor Julie Blaha, even though their power to monitor Feeding Our Future seemed slim at best.

“This is the largest COVID fraud case in the country because the MDE has not done its job,” Roger Chamberlain, chair of the Minnesota Senate Education Committee, said in a statement Tuesday. “The fraud started and continued because the MDE failed to complete its due diligence on these bad actors. They may have helped the investigation, but it is too little and too late.”

Scott Jensen, the Republican candidate for governor, called on Wales to request Mueller’s resignation.

Bur Walz said the criticism of the Republican Party was unjustified and defended his commissioner.

“It is surprising to me that we find people in the political sphere who are more angry because they cannot blame us for everything than admit that we have arrested criminals,” said the governor.

When he announced the indictments Tuesday, US Attorney Andy Luger said the matter had seized his office and the FBI, “working at breakneck speed,” until January 2022 to be able to shut down the scheme. When asked if the Minnesota Department of Education had done anything wrong in its handling of the matter, Luger replied, “That’s not for me to say.”

But Luger added: “We are pleased with the cooperation – the comprehensive cooperation – that we have had from MDE throughout this investigation. … I blame the defendants who perpetrated, covered up and carried out the scheme.”

On Wednesday, the state asked another judge, overseeing the dissolution of Feeding our Future, to order the group to reimburse it for more than $580,000 it paid to defend itself against what it called a “spurious lawsuit.”

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