Walz commissioner on state’s failure to prevent fraud: ‘You’re not gonna hear me place blame’

When asked how many MDE employees received disciplinary action for not providing oversight, Commissioner Willie Jett did not provide a number.

On Thursday, legislators, the OLA, and MDE Commissioner Willie Jett, pictured, gathered in a committee hearing to discuss the new legislative auditor report. (Minnesota Senate Media Services/YouTube)

Public officials gathered at a Thursday committee hearing to discuss a report which examined how the Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) failure to provide proper oversight created an environment that allowed the $250 million Feeding Our Future fraud scheme to be perpetuated.

On Thursday, the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) released a report which documented how MDE failed to provide proper oversight of Feeding Our Future’s participation in two federal child nutrition programs that are run through MDE and provide meals to low-income children.

In short, the programs involve the federal government sending taxpayer dollars to MDE, and MDE reimbursing nonprofits and other organizations who provide meals to low-income children at sites across the state. Federal law requires MDE to conduct regular oversight of the organizations and nonprofits who provide the meals.

Since September of 2022, the U.S. Justice Department has indicted 70 individuals for allegedly defrauding the government of at least $250 million via the nutrition programs run through MDE.

According to the Justice Department, a nonprofit called “Feeding Our Future” was at the center of the fraud. The vast majority of the 70 indicted individuals are Somali. So far, 18 individuals have pled guilty, five have been convicted, and two others have been found not guilty.

The OLA report about MDE states that MDE’s “inadequate oversight of Feeding Our Future created opportunities for fraud.”

Furthermore, the OLA “identified numerous instances when MDE did not provide adequate oversight, especially given information it either had in its possession or should have obtained but did not. These instances span all of MDE’s key oversight mechanisms, including its review of Feeding Our Future’s annual sponsor applications, investigations of complaints involving Feeding Our Future, and oversight of an administrative ‘serious deficiency’ process initiated due to deficiencies in Feeding Our Future’s operations. Further, these instances span the nearly four years (2018 to 2022) during which Feeding Our Future received public funds to administer nutrition programs.”

On Thursday, legislators, the OLA, and MDE Commissioner Willie Jett gathered in a committee hearing to discuss the report. Appointed by Gov. Tim Walz to lead the department in January 2023, Jett was not the commissioner of MDE when the Feeding Our Future fraud was uncovered.

Despite this, Commissioner Jett provided few answers at Thursday’s hearing. When asked how many MDE employees received disciplinary action for not providing oversight, Jett did not provide a number. Instead, the commissioner responded by saying it was “not right” to highlight who was responsible for missteps at MDE.

“You’re not gonna hear me place blame,” said Jett regarding the question about how many MDE employees have been disciplined.

When asked about financial restitution to the taxpayers and MDE responsibility, the MDE commissioner responded again by saying it was not right to highlight who misstepped. During his answers, Commissioner Jett did say that certain findings in the OLA report were fair, and the department would use the report to improve.

Additionally, the commissioner told lawmakers that MDE took actions to address the fraud when it became aware of it, and a letter from the MDE commissioner said the agency reported its concerns to law enforcement. However, Legislative Auditor Judy Randall noted that state statute “requires all employees who know about it (suspected fraud) to report it to OLA.”

According to one Minnesota statute, state employees must alert the OLA to suspected unlawful use of public funds unless alerting the OLA would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation. Meanwhile, a different state law says agency executives must alert the OLA to suspected unlawful use of public money and does not include the “interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation” exception.

Auditor Randall told the panel of legislators earlier in the hearing that her office only became aware of the fraud in January 2022 when it was reported in the media, which was “certainly after the Department of Education had reason to suspect fraud.”

In a written response to the OLA’s report, Commissioner Jett said “the responsibility for this flagrant fraud lies with the indicted and convicted fraudsters.”

During Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, criticized MDE’s failure to discover and report fraud. Additionally, Sen. Rest described the situation by saying, “But what we really do have is, the buck is still running down the street, running down the street, and stopping nowhere, and that is unacceptable.”


Luke Sprinkel

Luke Sprinkel previously worked as a Legislative Assistant at the Minnesota House of Representatives. He grew up as a Missionary Kid (MK) living in England, Thailand, Tanzania, and the Middle East. Luke graduated from Regent University in 2018.