Senate Republicans blame MDE shortcomings for alleged Feeding Our Future fraud

Minnesota Republican lawmakers are taking aim at the state’s education department for not stopping a nonprofit that allegedly used millions of dollars for fraudulent purposes.

Earlier this year, federal authorities seized property from several locations associated with Feeding Our Future, as reported by 5 INVESTIGATES. The nonprofit has been under investigation for allegedly taking millions in public funds meant to help feed underprivileged children and spending it on cars, luxury items and lakefront properties.

In April, a court decided to supervise the dissolution of the organization, and the state is also investigating Feeding Our Future over how it managed charitable donations.

Feeding Our Future Coverage

The Minnesota Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee had several hearings this past session on the Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) administration of food service programs. Court records show Feeding Our Future received nearly $200 million last year alone in federal child nutrition program funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The five Republicans on the Senate committee on Monday released an interim summary report of its initial findings, blaming MDE for “inexplicable shortcomings, and derelictions of duty” they say “greatly magnified” the amount of alleged fraud by Feeding Our Future.

“The summary shows three things: The Department of Education did not follow state and federal law, they lacked accountability, and now refuse to acknowledge their shortcomings,” committee chairman Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said in a statement. “Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars may be involved in this fraud, and the department simply cannot address the problem or recognize their mistakes.”

MDE has previously said COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions “interfered with the ability to oversee the program” and left it more vulnerable to fraud.

Chamberlain and the Republicans noted that that may be true but said the department’s leadership was still lacking and failed to protect funds. The committee chairman added that the initial findings “lead me to believe we need a full audit of this program” and said more hearings could be scheduled at a later time.

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, the ranking DFL member on the committee, called the Republicans’ report a “one-sided, partisan press release.”

“The Senate DFL has always fully supported the ongoing federal investigation as well as the expected nonpartisan legislative auditor investigation that will provide thorough answers to some of these important questions,” Wiger said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that Republicans released a one-sided, partisan press release instead of being willing to work with all members of the committee to get to the bottom of this important topic.”

MDE has defended its actions and said it did what it could to stop the alleged fraud.

“We want to be clear that MDE staff raised concerns with Feeding Our Future early on and escalated their reporting to the USDA, the OIG and the FBI. Even when MDE stopped payments to Feeding our Future, a court informed MDE the payments must continue,” Kevin Burns, MDE’s director of communications, told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS on Monday. “Because of MDE’s early action, the federal government opened an investigation, which we have fully supported. MDE moved quickly and repeatedly raised the issue to federal authorities until we were able to find someone who would take the troubling spending as seriously as we were.”