U.S. Attorney Andy Luger stunned the political world last week when he announced charges against 47 Minnesotans (now 49) for allegedly defrauding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child Nutrition Programs, administered locally by the Minnesota Department of Education, of $250 million.
Authorities believe Feeding Our Future (FOF) Executive Director Aimee Bock “oversaw” the scheme, carried out by meal sites (restaurants, nonprofits, etc.) “under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future.” These meal sites received federal reimbursements by falsely claiming to be serving millions of meals to hungry children.
In the time since the charges came down, state officials have told two big lies:
- A judge made us do it. Big Lie. No, he didn’t.
- We were all over this from day one, and did everything right. “Our process worked.” Big Lie. No, you didn’t. Your process cost taxpayers $250 million.
We start with the obvious: This was a massive, brazen criminal enterprise operated in broad daylight. You or I could have exposed it by staking out any one of the multiple fake food sites for a single day. Luger says there were 125 million fake meals, with 2,000, 3,000, and sometimes 6,000 fake meals a day at some sites.
The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) smelled a rat from the git-go. To use their words: “We were incredibly quick.” They were able to detect this fraud “in the very first month it began.” We’ll give them that. At some point they even contacted the nincompoops at the USDA. And they held up approving sites in the fall of 2020. But then when the crooks, FOF, sued them, they folded like a cheap suit. They voluntarily entered into an agreement with FOF and consented to the entry of a court order in December 2020 embodying that agreement, which bound them to promptly process FOF’s applications.
Now comes 2021 and the criminal enterprise is in high gear. Once again MDE does something right and in March issues a notice of serious deficiency to FOF, including such things as failure to have a CPA audit. FOF takes MDE to court. In the end, MDE folds again. Instead of having Attorney General Keith Ellison sue FOF, and instead of sending out some of his investigators or sending out their own, they waltz into court unarmed with the goods (even though they had spotted the phony documentation from day one and could have easily verified the 6,000 fake meals a day at any one of the dozens of sites). The judge understandably says, “Show me the beef.” He almost begs MDE and the AG to tell him what they have on FOF.
In a gross display of incompetence, MDE comes up with nothing. In fact, MDE — incredibly — effectively tells the judge in the end that FOF is a sponsor in good standing, and voluntarily resumes payments and begs the judge not to impose sanctions for failing to follow the consent order of December 2020. All the AG and MDE had to do was go out and confirm their suspicions. Would that have been so hard? The judge would have lowered the boom on FOF. Instead, MDE and the AG leave the judge to think FOF is just a hunky-dory charitable organization trying to feed the poor. In my book, they pulled the wool over the court’s eyes. They had no business suggesting to the court FOF was on the up and up when they had good reason to suspect FOF was engaged in a fraudulent enterprise.
The MDE and AG contacted the FBI in April 2021, again a good idea, but it seems like a direct result of getting hammered in court and as part of a strategy to back off and let someone else handle the mess.
Once the Feds shut the FOF fraud operation down in January 2022, after $250 million in taxpayer money was already out the door, the public rightly asked, “Why in Sam Hell didn’t MDE mind the store?” The governor and MDE blamed the judge — we stopped making payments but then resumed them because the judge made us. Ellison is still taking that line — this mess is all due to the court holding us in contempt and in effect forcing us to pay. The judge is having none of that lie. He says he did not order them to do anything. MDE entered into a voluntary agreement in 2020 with FOF and all he did was enter an agreed consent order. And he never entered an order compelling them to resume payments; they did that on their own too. And, oh, MDE and the AG told his honor that FOF was in compliance and good standing. And, oh, when the judge asked for evidence of wrongdoing, they had nothing to show him.
What is most unbelievable here is that MDE said in Senate testimony that they uncovered the fraud one month after it began. The documentation FOF was submitting “just didn’t make sense.” Why wasn’t all this evidence submitted to the judge? Your process worked, you say, you had the goods on them, but you don’t present it to the judge? Instead you tell him FOF is in good standing. Complete incompetence.
Thus rebuked by the court for their lie, the governor and MDE now stand on other excuses. We referred it to the FBI, so we couldn’t present our defenses to the court. This is Ellison’s line. We couldn’t say anything about the fraud because of the ongoing FBI investigation. Balderdash. The right thing to do would have been to have the AG or your investigators stake out one of these fake 5,000-meals-a-day sites — just one would have been enough — and put that evidence on top of the documentation evidence you had before the court. It cannot be that the FBI would have stood in the way of getting that evidence of an ongoing criminal enterprise in front of the court. You don’t let a murder happen so that you can catch the murderer.
Moreover, I don’t believe Ellison. The AG and MDE didn’t go to the FBI until sometime in April of 2021 — Ellison won’t tell us the date (he conveniently refers to it in his public statement as “the spring”) and I suspect that’s because the decision to go to the FBI was only after the AG botched the April 21 hearing before the judge. Ellison’s story is that they had all the evidence of the fraud fully in hand when they were in court in April. The FBI investigation was underway and they couldn’t jeopardize it. “The FBI repeatedly made it clear to the Attorney General’s Office and MDE that it should not disclose the existence of the investigation … in the state court lawsuit,” his office said.
Ellison wants us to believe that before his office and MDE appeared in court on April 21 of 2021 that the FBI instructed them not to present the evidence they had against FOF. Tell us the dates of these conversations, Mr. Ellison, and the names of these FBI folks, and exactly what they told you.
I believe we will find that the FBI never talked to Mr. Ellison before the April 2021 hearing before the judge. The FBI affidavit says they were contacted in April of 2021 and started their investigation in May of 2021. I believe the evidence will show that when the AG and MDE appeared before the court in April they hadn’t had a single discussion with the FBI. I don’t believe Ellison is telling the truth when he implies he was working with the FBI early on in the case. I don’t think MDE or the AG did their homework. I don’t think they were prepared at all when they appeared in court. They messed up, didn’t have their evidence for the court, and only after that show of incompetence did they go to the FBI.
Time will tell. Note that Ellison doesn’t say the FBI told the AG to withhold evidence of the fraud from the state court, only the existence of the federal investigation. It is hard to believe that the FBI would be instructing the AG and MDE to keep paying out millions of dollars, and instructing them not to disclose the fraud to the court. We need to know what Ellison told the FBI and when, and what the FBI told him and when. What did he say and when did he say it?
“The FBI made us do it” excuse just won’t sell. So MDE moves to yet another excuse: Well, we cannot define and detect criminal fraud. Not our business. Not qualified to do that. Not in our manual. Not pursuant to regulation. We properly referred it to the federal food people and OIG and the FBI. It’s their job. Our process worked. Again, balderdash. You are in court confronted by fraudsters. Your job and the job of the AG was to defend yourself and the people’s money, and that means you should have done whatever you had to do to present your case. You don’t pack up your tent and cave to crooks. You don’t let $250 million go out the door. This is not, as Ellison has said, “a success story.” Say what? If this is a success, I do not want to see your failures.
Governor, MDE, and yes, Mr. AG, all your noses are longer than a telephone wire. The judge didn’t make you do it. The FBI didn’t make you do it.
And you didn’t handle it right, at all.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not represent an official position of Alpha News.