In free lunch fraud: Analyze this

I’m scheduled to join Jon Justice on KTLK this morning at about 8:35 to discuss the massive $250 million free lunch fraud. The $250 million represents the payment of federal funds administered by the Minnesota Department of Education. The show can be live streamed here. I want to compile related materials for listeners in this post.

United States Attorney Andrew Luger announced charges against 47 defendants in six indictments and three criminal informations at a press conference on September 20 (video below). Two additional defendants have been charged since then.

Luger presented the factual background with illustrative exhibits at the press conference. At the same time the Department of Justice issued this press release summarizing the charges and posted PDFs of the indictments online. The indictment of ringleader Aimee Bock and 13 other defendants, for example, is posted here. The press release includes Luger’s salient quote: “This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions.” The emphasis should be on “brazen.”

The Minnesota Department of Education administered the free lunch programs in which the funds were paid out to perpetrators of the fraud. Some $200 million of the funds were paid out in 2021 after the MDE had detected the fraud. Aided and abetted by the Star Tribune, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison have sought to shift the blame for the continuing payments to Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann and to the FBI. Indeed, Governor Walz called for an investigation of Judge Guthmann. Judge Guthmann responded this past Thursday in this press release that called out both Walz and the Star Tribune. The key document supporting Judge Guthmann’s press release is the transcript of the April 21, 2021 hearing before him in the lawsuit brought by Feeding Our Future against MDE. This is the key passage of the press release:

[T]he Department of Education voluntarily resumed making payments to FOF. The Department of Education was not ordered by the court to do so. After the Department resumed voluntary payments, counsel for the Department of Education wrote the court asking that FOF’s motion for sanctions based on non-payment be denied as moot because the Department voluntarily resumed payments. In a later court filing related to FOF’s separate motion for sanctions based on the failure to approve or deny 144 applications for new food delivery sites, the Department of Education advised the court that FOF’s serious deficiencies were resolved as of June 4, 2021. Of the 144 applications, 143 were denied, resulting in FOF’s separate administrative appeal.

On February 26, 2022, the Star Tribune reported on a federal investigation of FOF. The article included the following false statement: “In April 2021, Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann told the department it didn’t have the authority to stop payments and ordered the department to resume payments.” Since February, that Star Tribune quote has been repeated or paraphrased on many occasions by many other media outlets. The same media sources reported that, in her April 4, 2022, testimony to the Minnesota Senate, the Commissioner of the Education stated that the MN Department of Education tried to stop payments to FOF, only to be ordered by Judge Guthmann to resume payments. That is false. Then, when federal indictments were announced this week, many new reports were published. On September 22, 2022, Governor Tim Walz told the media that the Minnesota Department of Education attempted to end payments to FOF because of possible fraud, but that Judge Guthmann ordered payments to continue in April 2021. That is also false.

As the public court record and Judge Guthmann’s orders make plain, Judge Guthmann never issued an order requiring the MN Department of Education to resume food reimbursement payments to FOF. The Department of Education voluntarily resumed payments and informed the court that FOF resolved the “serious deficiencies” that prompted it to suspend payments temporarily. All of the MN Department of Education food reimbursement payments to FOF were made voluntarily, without any court order.

On Tuesday morning Ellison submitted to an interview by WCCO’s Vineeta Sawkar (audio below). You can feel the flop sweat break out on Ellison’s forehead as Sawkar ever so slightly pressed him on his nonfeasance in shutting down the fraud. Citing Ellison’s own timeline on the scandal, she asked who knew what when. (Ellison’s timeline links to the 66-page affidavit of FBI Special Agent Travis Wilmer supporting the search warrants that were executed all over the Twin Cities in January.)

Responding to Sawkar, Ellison hemmed and hawed, pleaded attorney-client privilege, referred to cooperation with the FBI investigation, and repeatedly alleged compulsion by Judge Guthmann’s mythical “order” to continue payments. Ellison proclaimed at 13:30 of the audio clip: “This is a success story.”

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