Judge, Walz administration clash over Feeding Our Future payments

Chief Judge John H. Guthmann speaks during a motion hearing.
Judge John Guthmann speaks in this file photo from 2018, at the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul. The judge through a statement from the courts disputes assertions by the governor and the Minnesota Department of Education that he ordered payments to Feeding Our Future.
Renee Jones Schneider | Pool via Star Tribune

Updated: Sept. 24, 10:20 a.m. | Posted: Sept. 23, 9:15 p.m.

A Ramsey County judge late Friday chided Gov. Tim Walz for saying the judge had ordered state education officials to continue making payments to Feeding Our Future, the organization federal prosecutors say defrauded taxpayers out of $250 million in COVID-19 funds.

In an extraordinary statement, the Minnesota Judicial Branch said Judge John Guthmann “never ordered the Department of Education to resume payments to FOF in April 2021, or at any other time” and called Walz’s statement on the matter “inaccurate.”

A spokesperson for Walz responded later and said Guthmann had found the Education Department in contempt and that's why they resumed payments.

“Feeding Our Future demanded that MDE make payments, and 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 Walz administration’s statement said. “The court held MDE in contempt for not processing Feeding Our Future Applications.”

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Dozens of people, including the nonprofit’s founder, were charged this week with diverting federal funds for child nutrition for their personal gain, including properties, luxury goods and travel.

Guthmann had presided over the lawsuit Feeding Our Future filed against the Education Department in 2020. The lawsuit alleged the Minnesota agency was delaying approval of meal sites.

Walz on Thursday blamed the judge’s ruling for forcing his department to continue making payments to Feeding Our Future.

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

The court system’s statement Friday said MDE’s payments were continued voluntarily and not the result of a court ruling.

“The Department of Education suspended payments to FOF based on a ‘serious deficiencies’ letter it issued to FOF on March 30, 2021. As a result, FOF filed a motion asking Judge Guthmann to order the Department of Education to resume payments and to pay sanctions,” the courts’ statement said.

There is no indication in the court record that the judge directly ordered that the payments resume, but he did sanction the agency for its conduct in handling the applications.

In June of 2021, Guthmann said in an order that the department was in contempt of court and ordered MDE to pay a sanction of $35,750 to Feeding Our Future.

"MDE cannot divide the application process into pieces and take as long as it wishes at every stage of the process except the last," Guthmann wrote in that order.

Republicans were quick to point to the court’s Friday statement as evidence that Walz was derelict in responding to the fraud.

The governor’s Republican opponent Scott Jensen said Guthmann “put his career on the line in the defense of truth, justice, and Minnesota children” by calling out what Jensen said were lies.

“While I’ve called for Tim Walz to either fire his Education commissioner or ask for her resignation, we have moved beyond that,” Jensen said in a statement. “The lies need to stop, and Tim Walz needs to come clean to not only the local media, but every Minnesota child who had to go hungry due to his administration’s incompetence. At this point in time, we need to know: what did Tim Walz know and when did he know it?”