State authorities are investigating fraud at 10 Minnesota day care providers.
Chuck Johnson, acting commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said an investigation that began in 2014 led to the closure of 13 child care centers, six felony convictions and $4.6 million in court-ordered restitution.
Johnson said a common scheme has emerged.
"Essentially, it's like a shadow situation where there's not really care being provided for the children, but the children are signed up for care as if they are," said Johnson. "And in some cases, the parents are paid a kickback to be part of that scheme."
News of the 10 active cases was first reported by Fox 9. The story also raised the possibility that up to $100 million was being funneled overseas to a Somali terror group.
Johnson said there wasn't any evidence presented in the former cases to indicate ties to terrorism. He also said he found the $100 million figure to be not "credible." That would account for half of the child-care assistance program.
"From what we know about the scope of fraud within the program, we're obviously concerned about it, but it's not at that level," said Johnson.
Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is running for his old seat, tweeted that the abuse of funds was an example of "what happens when politically correct politicians look the other way when it comes to criminal behavior."
Gov. Mark Dayton, a DFLer, responded to the Fox 9 report during a news conference.
"I don't know that the report gave fair credit to what the Department of Human Services has been doing to try to investigate and punish the fraud that's occurred," said Dayton.
"It's not enough. We added, with the Legislature's support, eight positions last year, doubling the number of investigators. They will be able to redouble the efforts being made. But it's not something we've been indifferent to or unconcerned about."
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., denounced the report and said remittances help in the fight against terrorist groups.
"Financial stability for the Somali people, both here and in Somalia, is one of our strongest protections against the terroristic threat posed by Al-Shabaab. We should be making it easier for our constituents to support their families — not impugning the community for it. Fox 9 should issue a thorough correction and apology for its irresponsible reporting."
State Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, said she's troubled by the reports of childcare fraud, but notes that the fraud investigations wouldn't be possible without communication between DHS and the Somali community.
"Vilifying an entire community — as stories like this often do — does not serve justice or get results. Collaboration does," said Omar in a statement responding to the Fox 9 story.
"It is dangerous to draw a link between people sending remittances to their loved ones and the funding of terrorist organizations. I know too well that many Republicans will use this to further Islamophobic rhetoric within our society," she added.
Jim Hagedorn, a GOP candidate running for U.S. Congress in Minnesota's 1st District, sent a press release that said the Fox 9 story, "confirms the need for continued extreme vetting and a refugee resettlement timeout."
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