Governor Tim Walz pictured in 2020. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

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Governor Tim Walz on Thursday said he “would hope there would be an investigation” into a state judge who presided over a lawsuit between the Minnesota Department of Education and Feeding Our Future, which is suspected of defrauding the federal government. 

Walz made the remarks at a news conference Thursday morning. He credited his administration for acting early on suspicions that eventually led to charges this week against 48 defendants in the nation’s largest COVID pandemic fraud. The DFL governor, who is up for reelection this fall, also criticized “folks in the political realm that are more angry that they can’t blame us for everything rather than recognizing we had criminals that we caught.”

“We caught this fraud,” Walz said. “We caught it very early. We alerted the right people.”

Federal prosecutors announced charges Tuesday against defendants allegedly involved in a massive Minnesota-based scam that defrauded $250 million in federal food-aid money intended to feed low-income children.

The indictments against Feeding Our Future executive director Aimee Bock and her alleged co-conspirators are quickly becoming a source of political blame and back-patting in an election year with several offices at stake.

Federal prosecutors allege that Bock and several organizations that worked under Feeding Our Future greatly exaggerated or completely made up the number of meals they served in order to receive federal funds that they instead used to buy homes, cars, and other goods.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, a former state senator, posted a video to his Twitter account Tuesday saying, “Fraud is widespread in Minnesota under the lack of leadership under Tim Walz.”

Republicans are criticizing the Walz administration for failing to halt the alleged fraud, while the governor is eager to highlight steps the state government took last year to crack down on Feeding Our Future. 

Walz credited his administration for trying to halt the payments in 2021 and for tipping off the FBI, which he said resulted in this week’s indictments. Walz also questioned a judge’s handling of a lawsuit between Feeding Our Future and the state.

Feeding Our Future filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Education in 2020 alleging that it violated federal regulations. The education department has broad oversight of the federal food-aid money, distributing it to sponsor organizations like Feeding Our Future which then disseminate it further to smaller organizations working under them that are supposed to feed underprivileged children and adults.

The education department moved in March 2021 to freeze federal payments to Feeding Our Future and to stop approving their applications for new meal distribution sites. That prompted Feeding Our Future to file a motion in April 2021 asking Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann to order the education department to resume paying it with federal food-aid money, among other requests.

A reporter asked Walz Thursday if he thought “the judge who told your education department to restart payment should resign.”

“I would hope there would be an investigation into that,” Walz said, “because just to be candid–and I’m very careful about this and I understand my position and the separation of powers–we respected the judge’s decision, but I could–and yes on this one I could tell you I was speechless, unbelievable that this ruling would come down, did not know what to say. Obviously we had to honor it [the judge’s order].”

The Minnesota Judicial Branch issued a statement on Guthmann’s behalf late Friday afternoon, stating that Walz and media outlets incorrectly said the judge had ordered the education department to restart payments to Feeding Our Future. Kyle Christoperson, a spokesman for the State Court Administrator’s Office, said Thursday that Guthmann was out of the office that day and could not respond to Walz’s statements until Friday.

“As the public court record and Judge Guthmann’s orders make plain, Judge Guthmann never issued an order requiring the MN Department of Education to resume food reimbursement payments to FOF [Feeding Our Future],” said the judicial branch statement. “The Department of Education voluntarily resumed payments and informed the court that FOF resolved the ‘serious deficiencies’ that prompted it to suspend payments temporarily.

“All of the MN Department of Education food reimbursement payments to FOF were made voluntarily, without any court order.”

Court documents from the case show that Feeding Our Future filed a motion on April 23, 2021, arguing that the education department’s decision “to issue a stop payment on all of Feeding Our Future’s claims violate federal law.” The organization asked Guthmann to compel payment from the education department.

Guthmann issued an order on June 24, 2021, stating that Feeding Our Future’s request was “moot because MDE [Minnesota Department of Education] lifted its ‘stop pay’ as to Feeding Our Future’s claims and paid the reimbursement claims that were the subject of the motion.”

Guthmann’s ruling also found the education department in contempt of court. He ordered the state to pay Feeding Our Future $35,750 for violating a prior court order, and $11,750 in attorneys’ fees.

Legal experts and some Minnesota Republicans say Walz was wrong to suggest an investigation into Guthmann’s ruling. They also questioned why the state did not appeal the judge’s decision at the time. 

“Lax oversight allowed bad actors to commit this massive fraud and there were no appeals to the judge’s ruling. This problem is not in the judicial branch–it’s in the Walz administration,” state Senator Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said in a statement. 

Chamberlain chairs a Senate committee that held hearings on the matter this summer; it issued findings earlier this month blaming the education department for mismanaging the federal money.

Joseph Daly, a professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said Walz should not have called for an investigation into a judge. It would be permissible for the governor to raise concerns over Guthmann’s decisions, he said, but talk of an investigation risks broaching the separation of powers doctrine, which holds executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government in equal and separate standing.

The proper process for challenging Guthmann’s ruling would have been the state filing an appeal in 2021, Daly said. The state did not file an appeal.

“I do not understand why Judge Guthmann’s decision was not appealed, taking into account what Governor Walz said this morning about what he knew and suspected,” Daly said Thursday. “This, I think, was a major mistake.”

Walz’s office did not respond to requests for an interview about his statements. The Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor party and other DFL officials did not return messages seeking comment.

The state Attorney General’s Office, which represented the education department in the matter, declined to comment Thursday.

The education department opted not to appeal Guthmann’s ruling because it feared rising legal costs, department spokesperson Kevin Burns said Thursday. The department believed continued legal action could alert Feeding Our Future to the federal investigation, he said. 

“The court had made it clear that if we were to continue the legal fight to withhold payments, MDE [Minnesota Department of Education] would incur additional sanctions and legal penalties,” Burns said.

Minnesota conservatives are pointing to the case as evidence of poor government oversight. The Republican Party of Minnesota’s communication director Nick Majerus said Walz’s talk of investigating a judge is a cynical attempt to deflect blame. Majerus called it “dishonest election-year politics at its worst.” 

Both Walz and Judge Guthmann are on the ballot in November.

Sahan Journal reporter Hibah Ansari contributed to this story.

Correction: The article has been corrected to reflect that Judge John Guthmann did not order the Minnesota Department of Education to restart payments to Feeding Our Future using federal food-aid money.

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Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...