A week ago Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann called out the Star Tribune by name in a a press release he authorized regarding the Feeding Our Future case. This is the key passage bearing on the Star Tribune:
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.
In stories published over the past week — here (by Kelly Smith and Jeffrey Meitrodt, September 23), here (by Jeffrey Meitrodt, September 26), and here (by Kelly Smith and Stephen Montemayor, September 27) — Star Tribune reporters have taken up the issue as though they weren’t a party to it, dealt with it inadequately, and muddied the waters.
No one has responded on behalf of the Star Tribune as an institution. All in all, a pathetic display.
Today the Star Tribune takes up the issue in the editorial “Hungering for clarity after food fraud.” Citing Governor Tim Walz’s outburst calling for an investigation of the judge that was the proximate cause of Judge Guthmann’s statement, the editors write:
That outburst inspired a belated pushback from the judge, who promptly issued a formal statement calling the governor’s remarks, MDE statements and media reports about his order “false.”
One would never know that the judge’ press release called out the Star Tribune for being the progenitor of the false statement. Again, one would not know that the Star Tribune is a party to the issue. The editorial nevertheless proceeds to adjudicate the issue and find that Judge Guthmann was correct before muddying the waters:
The judge is correct; he did not formally issue an order for MDE to resume payment. MDE’s suspension of reimbursements to FOF was not the question before the judge on April 21, 2021. That hearing concerned only a separate FOF complaint about delays in MDE’s approval or rejection of its applications for new distribution sites.
David Schultz, a Hamline and University of Minnesota professor and political observer who reviewed but is not involved in the case, told an editorial writer that it looked like a classic administrative law case in which lawsuits are filed to force government agencies to issue permits or licenses or, in this case, approve partner sites promptly.
“I don’t see anything that says the court compelled MDE to resume payments,” he said.
In recent days, Walz and MDE retreated from their claim that Guthmann formally ordered payments. Still, as recently as Tuesday, Ellison asserted in a WCCO Radio interview that the court “ordered payment.” On Wednesday, a spokesman from his office told an editorial writer that if Ellison called the judge’s action an order, he misspoke.
Longtime observers of state government struggle to recall a precedent for this kind of blunt contradiction on an important factual point among senior public officials. It’s the type of blunder that threatens to further undermine public confidence in the ability of government to oversee and distribute taxpayer dollars properly. The allegation that criminals can defraud a well-intended public relief program for the poor is damaging enough.
It’s true that during the oral argument at the much-discussed hearing, FOF pressed the reimbursement issue. It’s also correct that transcripts show the judge’s skepticism about MDE’s legal justification for stopping payment. But he made it clear that FOF would have to file a separate complaint that would have to be separately litigated for him to rule on the payments issue. He later ruled against MDE only on the application decision delays.
Judge Guthmann is correct. The Star Tribune got it wrong. The error was large and consequential, though the Star Tribune has yet to acknowledge the error directly or to answer for it. On this point they are in the company of Walz and Ellison, who are at least frankly political players.
The editorial doesn’t stop there. It continues:
Former [Ed.: DFL] Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who also isn’t involved in the case, told a Star Tribune reporter this week that although there was no formal order from the judge, she could see why MDE could take Guthmann’s comments during the hearing to mean that the agency would be hard-pressed to stop payments.
“The bottom line is that Judge Guthmann did not order them to continue payments. At the same time, it is understandable why the Department of Education felt like they had to continue paying,” Gaertner said. “A fair reading of the federal regulations seemed to require it, and more importantly though, they had to feel constrained to not in any way interfere with the FBI investigation.”
By the time the question of the payments again came before Guthmann, MDE had voluntarily resumed dispensing large sums to FOF rather than continuing to fight the legal battle. Ellison and MDE have said they feared tipping off FOF to the existence of the FBI probe that MDE’s concerns had by then inspired. The attorney general continues to point out, correctly, that it was MDE and the state that initially blew the whistle on FOF and worked with the feds to secure the indictments.
Still, MDE leaders acknowledged to the Star Tribune in May that, had they required extensive receipts and other paperwork, they may have been able to end the department’s relationship with FOF.
Why the decision was made to continue the payments and why stronger state oversight wasn’t in place are among the critical unanswered questions in this tangled affair. Minnesotans deserve answers to those questions — and accurate, clear communication from their elected officials.
There is much more that could be said, but I will leave it at this. In its call for “answers” to critical questions and for “accurate, clear communications,” the Star Tribune should be invited to look in the damned mirror.