Walz defends state role in Feeding Our Future scandal

Tim Walz speaks
Gov. Tim Walz was asked about the Feeding Our Future allegations at a news conference on public safety on Thursday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday called for the investigation of a Ramsey County judge who ordered the state to continue making payments to Feeding Our Future, an organization at the center of what is alleged to be the largest-in-the-nation COVID-19 fraud scheme.

The governor at an unrelated news conference defended the Minnesota Department of Education’s response in uncovering misuse of payments that were intended to feed Minnesota children. And he said that department heads stopped payments to the group but later had to continue making them after Feeding Our Future sued the state for discrimination and won.

Walz said he was “speechless” when Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann ruled in favor of Feeding Our Future in April of 2021.

Federal prosecutors this week announced charges against 48 people involved in what they said was a $250 million embezzlement scheme run through the organization. Some of those involved are alleged to have used the child nutrition money on jewelry, property and travel.

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“I would hope there would be an investigation into that,” Walz said when asked if Guthmann should resign. 

Saying he understands the separation of powers and that he respected the judge’s decision, Walz told reporters, “I was speechless. (It’s) unbelievable that this ruling would come down, I did not really know what to say. Obviously, we had to honor it. But it was at that point in time, I said, ‘We have got to continue to push the federal government and the FBI to do the investigation.’”

After facing pushback from Minnesota Republicans earlier this week, Walz said state education department officials should be lauded, not criticized, for their response to the fraud. And he noted that he and others in his administration couldn’t comment on the matter for months due to the ongoing FBI investigation.

“We caught this fraud. We caught it very early. We alerted the right people. We were taken to court. We were sued. We were threatened with going to jail. We stuck with it,” Walz said. “We got the FBI out there, and we have 48 people under indictment. And that's the way it's supposed to work.”

GOP lawmakers and candidates again criticized Walz on Thursday, saying that his call to investigate Guthmann was the wrong approach.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, chairs the Senate Education Committee and has held several hearings devoted to the payments made through Feeding Our Future. In a news release, Chamberlain said the Walz administration is to blame for the fraud.

“Lax oversight allowed bad actors to commit massive fraud and there were no appeals to the judge’s ruling,” he said. “The problem is not in the judicial branch, it's in the Walz administration.”

Scott Jensen, the Republican running to unseat Walz, said he would have appealed Guthmann’s ruling rather than letting it stand.

“Did Tim Walz and his commissioners appeal the decision? Did they say, ‘Hold it, we’ve had something flagged, we rose it up to the level of recognition and consciousness?’” Jensen said. “It was at that time that he should’ve gotten involved, not today when he calls for the investigation of Judge Guthmann, and that’s what we’ve been seeing.”

In announcing the charges on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger said that the dozens of people involved in the scheme created false rosters of students and faked some 125 million meals. He alleged that Feeding our Future was at the center of the scam. 

Feeding Our Future closed down in February after the federal investigation came to light.

The organization’s CEO Aimee Bock has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty this week to the charges against her.