The alleged Feeding Our Future scandal: The Guthmann files [Updated]

The state Department of Education (MDE) testified in front of the state Senate earlier this week, and blamed their failure to halt the free-food money flows on “local judges.”

Not one person has been arrested or charged in the case.

As quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, state education commissioner Heather Mueller defends her agency’s work to uncover the alleged fraud,

Mueller blamed local judges for blocking MDE from taking stronger action against Feeding Our Future, noting the department was forced to defend its actions after Feeding Our Future sued MDE in November 2020.

It turns out that it wasn’t judges, plural. It was a single judge, John H. Guthman of Ramsey County.

The judge was first appointed to the bench in 2008. In Minnesota, judges are subject to election, and Guthmann was re-elected in both 2010 and 2016. As is typical in such elections, he ran unopposed both times.

He would be on the ballot again this fall, as his current term expires in January 2023.

Some background. MDE tried to prevent the alleged fraud before it even began by refusing to process applications from Feeding Our Future for new free-food distribution sites in April 2020.

MDE relented when Feeding Our Future threatened to sue. In October 2020, MDE canceled five Feeding Our Future distribution sites from continued program participation. At that point, Feeding Our Future did file a lawsuit in Ramsey County court (serving the City of St. Paul).

The agency and the nonprofit continued to battle all winter and into the spring, culminating in a decision by Judge Guthmann in April 2021. As recalled by the Star Tribune,

In April 2021, Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann told MDE that it didn’t have the authority to stop payment and would need to continue to pay Feeding Our Future. 

[Update. It turns out that the Star Tribune‘s recollection was a complete lie. The real story has now been told.]

At this point, the Department turned the case over to the FBI, which launched an investigation into Feeding Our Future in May 2021.

In June 2021, Judge Guthmann went further, finding the Department in contempt of court. As the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported at the time,

Judge John Guthmann of Ramsey County District Court ordered the department to pay $35,750 to Feeding Our Future and $11,750 in attorney’s fees for failing to follow through on an earlier agreement, finding the department in contempt of court.

The judge went so far as to speculate that failure to follow his orders would cause “irreparable harm” to the children. If you believe the FBI in this case, few, if any, children were fed by this program.

Inexplicably, the Department failed to appeal any decisions by Judge Guthmann. After forwarding the case to the FBI, they washed their hands of the affair, paid any invoices submitted, and waited for the FBI to do their work.

In January 2022, the FBI conducted their now-famous raids on the nonprofit. At this point, MDE was able to shut down Feeding Our Future, and a related nonprofit, Partners in Nutrition. In December 2021, MDE had shut down a third nonprofit, Youth Leadership Academy (d/b/a Gar Gaar Family Services).

Recounting these events is more than a mere historical exercise. Had MDE acted more aggressively early on, or appealed their legal setbacks, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars could have been saved.

This table lists payments from MDE to nonprofits, not associated with schools or childcare facilities, for the free-food programs under scrutiny,

The above table shows payments by fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

Had MDE prevailed in early 2020, more than $460 million, would not have gone out the door to those three organizations in fiscal years 21 and 22.

Judge Guthmann’s April 2021 decision and the failure of MDE to file an appeal, cost taxpayers the $225 million paid out in fiscal year 22, plus whatever amounts MDE paid out in May and June of 2020.

All water under the bridge at this point. It’s worth noting, however, that the Department of Education has already approved 1,763 free food distribution sites for the summer of 2022. It appears that some lessons never get learned.