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GOP Senate report blames Minnesota education department for meal program fraud

The report from Senate Education Chair Roger Chamberlain asserts the Minnesota Department of Education did not take proper safeguards against fraud, which “greatly magnified the scope of the loss.” His DFL counterpart on the education committee called the report "partisan" and one-sided." The education department has stood by the way it approached tens of millions in fraud at the nonprofit Feeding Our Future.

Chamberlain 5-19
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, addresses reporters Thursday, May 19, at the Minnesota Capitol on the status of legal sports betting legislation and a K-12 omnibus bill.
Alex Derosier / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — A report released by Republican members of a Minnesota Senate panel Monday, Sept. 12, blames the state Department of Education’s “derelictions of duty” for failing to stop tens of millions in fraud at a nonprofit tasked with running free meal programs for children during the pandemic.

Feeding Our Future, a St. Anthony, Minnesota-based nonprofit that provided meals to needy children, closed in February amid an FBI fraud investigation. In January, more than 200 FBI agents served warrants at several of the nonprofit’s locations around the Twin Cities metropolitan area, seeking evidence in a case allegedly involving more than $40 million in fraudulent spending of federal and state nutrition program funds.

The report from Senate Education Chair Roger Chamberlain and four other GOP committee members asserts the Department of Education did not take proper safeguards against fraud, which “greatly magnified the scope of the loss.”

“Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars may be involved in this fraud, and the department simply cannot address the problem or recognize their mistakes,” the Lino Lakes Republican said in a statement.

Education department officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday, though in the past have stood by their approach to the fraud alleged at Feeding Our Future. Education Commissioner Heather Mueller in April testified to the Senate Education Committee that her agency had become concerned about the nonprofit in 2020. She told the Senate panel that education officials questioned nonprofit leaders and reported concerns to federal officials. In 2021 MDE started working with the FBI on its investigation, Mueller said.

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"That is the primary reason that we are here today, because our team was able to identify within a month that there was exponential growth that could not be explained," the education commissioner testified in the spring. "We raised flags of concern … We're sitting here because our process worked."

MINNESOTA LEGISLATURE:
For years, the Northern Lights Express rail project has failed to gain traction in the Minnesota Legislature, largely due to GOP opposition.

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, the top Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmaker on the Senate Education Committee, called Chamberlain's report partisan.

“The Senate DFL has always fully supported the ongoing federal investigation as well as the expected nonpartisan legislative auditor investigation that will provide thorough answers to some of these important questions," he said. "It’s unfortunate that Republicans released a one-sided, partisan press release instead of being willing to work with all members of the committee to get to the bottom of this important topic.”

Feeding Our Future handled nearly $200 million in federal funds intended for food aid in 2021, up from just $3.5 million in 2019. According to court records, funds intended for meal programs allegedly ended up going toward personal expenses like luxury cars and travel expenses. No employees of the nonprofit or food distribution site workers have been federally charged in connection with the alleged fraud.

Chamberlain in his report pointed out that Minnesota is the only state where officials have uncovered fraud to the extent authorities allege occurred at Feeding Our Future.

Minnesota’s education department said stay-at-home orders and telework policies from Gov. Tim Walz made it difficult for agency employees to oversee the program, making it vulnerable to abuse. In the report on his committee’s findings, Chamberlain said the work restrictions did not appear to explain all the issues.

“A review of related documents and a series of three public hearings on the scandal paint a picture of agency leadership that either did not know how to responsibly manage FNS (Federal and state nutrition service) programs or found the faithful execution of those duties burdensome and optional,” he said.

The senator said the issues his report identified led him to believe that there should be a full audit of the food program, as investigations have already uncovered nearly 30 issues with tracking program money. He said he continues to monitor developments from federal authorities and the Legislative Auditor and is prepared to hold more hearings to get to the bottom of what happened.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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