The chairs of three U.S. House committees said they are investigating how the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) “failed to prevent” fraudsters from allegedly stealing $250 million in federal funds.
In a Tuesday letter, House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, House Committee on Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer, and House Committee on Agriculture Chairman Glenn Thompson informed MDE Commissioner Willie Jett, who was appointed to the role earlier this year by Gov. Tim Walz, that they are “investigating how MDE manages and exercises oversight” over two federal programs central to the Feeding Our Future case.
The letter was also signed by Minnesota’s Republican members of Congress, including House Majority Whip Tom Emmer.
“Due to a lack of transparency from the State of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we are no closer to understanding how $250 million of taxpayer funds were stolen from children and families in need. Minnesotans deserve answers. We will continue to do our work to hold those responsible to account and prevent this from occurring again,” said Emmer.
A total of 60 Minnesotans have been charged in what federal officials have described as a “brazen scheme of staggering proportions.” At the center of the case is a defunct nonprofit organization known as Feeding Our Future, which participated in the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Programs, both belonging to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).
These programs provide reimbursements for meals distributed to low-income children by food sites, like schools, nonprofits, restaurants, and more. Each food site must have a sponsor organization, in this case Feeding Our Future. The food sites submit reports on how many meals they are serving to the sponsor organization, which then submits the reports to the government for reimbursement.
In Minnesota, the federal reimbursements are wired to the sponsor organizations via MDE. The sponsor organization then disburses the money among the food sites.
The 60 defendants, 14 of whom have pleaded guilty, are accused of defrauding these federal programs of $250 million and using the funds on lavish personal expenses.
Congressional Republicans have sent multiple letters to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seeking documents related to the case, including a July letter which they say Vilsack has yet to address.
“The FNS and MDE are required to conduct oversight of program operations. MDE has the authority under program statutes and regulations to take actions to safeguard program funds and to also engage other state and federal entities with specific legal authority to conduct investigations of fraud or criminal wrongdoing,” Tuesday’s letter says.
“These allegations raise many questions about the management of these programs at the USDA and MDE, and perhaps in other states. In this case, it is unclear how the FNS and its partnering state agency, MDE, failed to prevent this fraud, which has been described as the ‘largest COVID-19 fraud scheme in the nation,’” it adds.
The letter directs Jett to hand over documents and preserve all records related to the case.
“It is shocking that the Minnesota Department of Education along with the Department of Agriculture’s Food Nutrition Service failed to prevent what has been described as the largest COVID-19 fraud scheme in the nation,” said Rep. Pete Stauber.
“This scandal raises many questions, and I believe Minnesotans deserve answers. We need to know exactly how such a large amount of taxpayer money was allowed to be stolen at the expense of some of our state’s most vulnerable. That’s why I am proud to sign onto this letter demanding the Minnesota Department of Education provide the necessary documents so our House Committees can properly conduct a much-needed investigation into this shameful scandal.”