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Our View: Walz administration has to own this mess

Lack of oversight almost as appalling as the alleged fraud in the Feeding Our Future case.

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Our View
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We're not sure what's more appalling: The audacity of the “Feeding Our Future” scheme or the lack of oversight that allowed dozens of now-indicted defendants in Minnesota to allegedly steal $250 million in COVID-relief funds.

The scandal, which has elevated Minnesota to the top of the “Biggest COVID fraud” list, reads like an episode of “The Sopranos,” but without the nudity and bloodshed. The United States Attorneys Office for the district of Minnesota has described an elaborate web of shell corporations, bribes, kickbacks, money laundering, luxury cars, jewelry and international travel.

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But in reality, the scheme was shockingly simple, and it hinged almost entirely on the alleged perpetrators' confidence that state officials couldn't or wouldn't monitor their activities.

Here's the short version of the scheme.

The Federal Child Nutrition Program, which operates under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services, is administered in Minnesota by the Department of Education. During the pandemic, the feds loosened the rules for this program, allowing for-profit restaurants and other organizations to serve free meals to needy children, then be reimbursed. The more meals they claimed to have served, the more money they could get – but only if someone signed off on their documentation.

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The “watcher” in this case was supposed to be Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit organization that sponsored the meal-distribution sites. FOF and its founder, Aimee Bock, sent nearly $200 million in claims to the Minnesota Department of Education in 2021 (compared to just $3.4 million in 2019). FOF allegedly kept millions of dollars in administrative fees before distributing the rest of the cash to the organizations that claimed to be serving the meals.

We don't know how much of that money, if any, actually put food into the mouth of a hungry child. What we do know is that to date, 49 people have been charged, including six people affiliated with Brava Restaurant in southeast Rochester. By the time this investigation and resulting prosecutions wrap up, Minnesota will likely be a national cautionary tale about lax oversight of public programs and taxpayer dollars.

But, other than the actual perpetrators, who is to blame for this fiasco?

Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen, are making political hay by calling for an independent investigation into Gov. Tim Walz and the Department of Education. Jensen and Sen. Majority Leader Jeremy Miller of Winona have called for the resignation or firing of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller – who could be removed from office by a GOP-controlled Senate when it goes back into session.

Walz, Mueller and Attorney General Keith Ellison have pointed out that when MDE began sensing trouble with Feeding Our Future, it alerted the FBI, then had to stay quiet to avoid getting in the way of federal investigators. The resulting delay allowed the alleged fraud to continue – but Jensen and the GOP can rightly argue that by the time the FBI got involved, the cat was already out of the bag, and a lot of money was already out the door.

The buck has to stop somewhere, and Ellison isn't helping matters by calling the indictments a “success story” of coordination between state and federal officials. If and when the government recovers a big chunk of the stolen money, then Ellison can talk about success.

For now, the Walz administration must own this mess. Errors must be admitted, processes scrutinized, and wheels must be set in motion to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.

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