Judge never ordered state to continue paying Feeding Our Future, but that’s not the end – InForum

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ST. PAUL — The Ramsey County judge under scrutiny for his role in the explosive growth of Feeding Our Future has never ordered state regulators to continue paying the nonprofit’s allegedly fraudulent meal claims, but he warned they would be in “big trouble” if they stopped.

Following indictments in the alleged $250 million child food scandal, Governor Tim Walz last week shone the spotlight on Ramsey County District Court Judge John Guthmann and suggested his decisions in the 2020 Feeding Our Future lawsuit against the Minnesota Department. Education should be “studied”.

The judge responded on Friday, calling the governor’s criticisms “false”.

Judge John Guthmann speaks in this 2018 file photo, at the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul. The judge, in a court statement, disputes claims by the governor and the Minnesota Department of Education that he ordered payments to Feeding Our Future.

Renee Jones Schneider/Pool via Star Tribune/TNS

As Walz said, even though the Education Department suspected Feeding Our Future and the sponsor’s foodservice customers of fraud, Guthmann ordered the department to continue making tens of millions of dollars in food refunds.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz speaks during a roundtable
Minnesota Governor Tim Walz speaks during a panel discussion on what the proposed $300 million public safety plan would mean for Duluth at Duluth City Hall on Friday afternoon, February 25, 2022 .

Jed Carlson / Upper Telegram

Guthmann says he “never issued” such an order and that the department “voluntarily resumed payments.”

A review of the court record shows that Guthmann was correct in not ordering the department to pay Feeding Our Future. However, a nearly three-hour hearing in April 2021 appears to have left state officials feeling like they had no choice but to keep paying.

“Feeding Our Future demanded that MDE make payments, and the court made it clear that if MDE were to continue the legal fight to withhold payments, MDE would face legal sanctions and penalties,” the Department of Education said on Friday. .

Guthmann said through a spokesperson on Monday that the department’s interpretation was inaccurate, pointing out that he had no jurisdiction over the payments.

Six months prior to that hearing, as the Education Department consulted with the United States Department of Agriculture over an implausible spike in reimbursement requests, Feeding Our Future sued the department for taking too long to approve 51 requests for new sites to feed children during the coronavirus pandemic.

The nonprofit wanted Guthmann to grant an emergency temporary restraining order requiring quick decisions on the claims.

Guthmann never had to comment on this request, as the two parties reached an agreement in which the department promised to approve or reject the requests “within a reasonable time” and to provide all technical assistance. necessary to get them approved.

But in January 2021, the department informed Feeding Our Future that it was “seriously deficient” as a sponsor of the food program because it did not have tax-exempt status – which turned out to be a error – and because he had not properly filed a financial audit.

On March 31, 2021, the ministry issued a second Notice of Deficiency related to the audit and other concerns, including reports suggesting that the nonprofit’s customers were not actually serving meals for which they were paid.

The letter informed the nonprofit that the department would stop reimbursements until it could approve the claims.

Feeding Our Future complained to the judge that the department had broken its promise, and Guthmann called a hearing for April 21, 2021.

According to a transcript of the hearing, the department was withholding $20.5 million in claims from Feeding Our Future at the time.

“My people are going bankrupt. Children are starving themselves,” said Rhyddid Watkins, attorney for Feeding Our Future.

MDE told the judge it was prohibited from paying on invalid claims and had put conditions in place for the nonprofit to return to compliance.

Guthmann acknowledged that the lawsuit was about the timely approval of site requests and that he had no jurisdiction over payments.

Yet he testified throughout the hearing that based on his reading of federal regulations, the department’s decision to stop payments was premature and that he needed to give Feeding Our Future time to submit submissions. documents demonstrating compliance.

“The settlement does not allow you to withhold payment while you research this information,” the judge said. “…You first stopped the payment, then asked your questions.”

At one point, Kristine Nogosek of the Attorney General’s office explained to the judge: “MDE’s argument is that by imposing the additional conditions, the breach can be remedied so that MDE does not have to suspend payments throughout the duration of the corrective action, serious deficiency to be treated.”

Guthmann replied, “Well, suspension of payments is not a condition. It is an action. So it’s just inconsistent with the plain language of the regulations. And in the absence of a different regulation that you rely on, you have a big problem.

Keith Ellison.jpg

Keith Ellison answers questions from the press after kicking off a popular door-to-door event at North Commons Park in Minneapolis on Friday, August 17. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Some criticized the department for resuming payments after that hearing rather than continuing to fight it. Attorney General Keith Ellison said Monday they had good reason:

“MDE and the Attorney General’s Office did not pursue the stoppage through legal channels because it would have risked having to disclose to the FBI the alleged fraud report from Feeding Our Future MDE and the federal criminal investigation that led to followed,” he said. .

The Education Department noted Friday that in addition to urging officials to resume payments, Guthmann also scorned the department for failing to process site requests.

The judge hinted at the prospect of penalties during the April 2021 hearing and imposed them in June 2021. For violating the December agreement to quickly process site applications, he ordered the state to pay the nonprofit $35,750 in penalties, plus $11,750 for attorney fees.

“The MDE cannot divide the application process into pieces and take as long as it wishes at each stage of the process except the last,” Judge wrote. “In the context of a finished school year and an even shorter summer season, such a practice can only be considered a clear violation of the court order and applicable federal regulations.”

Guthmann added, “Only through a firm declaration by the Court, accompanied by a meaningful financial consequence, can the Court guarantee that the MDE will follow its orders.”

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