(FOX 9) - In a rare public rebuke, a Ramsey County judge on Friday criticized Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz for making what the judge called "inaccurate statements" about a massive fraud case.
The previous day, Walz called for an investigation into Judge John Guthmann, whom he accused of forcing the state to restart payments to nonprofit Feeding Our Future in 2021. In his response, Guthmann said Minnesota education officials made all payments voluntarily.
Federal authorities have indicted 48 people connected to the nonprofit in what the feds consider the biggest pandemic fraud scheme in the U.S. The feds say at least $250 million was stolen from a federal nutrition program meant to feed low-income children.
Guthmann, issuing a nearly 600-word statement through a court spokesman at 4:41 p.m. Friday, said Walz and Minnesota Education Commissioner Heather Mueller repeatedly have made inaccurate statements to the public about the judge's 2021 order.
"The Department of Education voluntarily resumed payments and informed the court that [Feeding Our Future] resolved the "serious deficiencies" that prompted it to suspend payments temporarily," Guthmann said. "All of the Minnesota Department of Education food reimbursement payments to [Feeding Our Future were made voluntarily, without any court order."
In the 2021 order, Guthmann held state officials in contempt for failing to process 143 applications from Feeding Our Future for new meal sites. The judge ordered the agency to pay Feeding Our Future more than $47,000 as both a fine and reimbursement for attorneys' fees.
Guthmann's Friday statement does not address his contempt finding or say whether state education officials should've interpreted it as a requirement to keep processing payments.
The 2021 order was the climax of a 14-month officials legal battle after the state stopped processing applications for new meal sites in 2020 and later stopped making payments to the nonprofit, court records indicate.
Feeding Our Future sued. In December 2020, state education officials and the nonprofit agreed to conditions that required the state to process Feeding Our Future's applications in a "reasonably prompt" manner, court records indicate. That was the line that led to Guthmann's contempt finding.
"Only through a strong statement by the Court, accompanied by a meaningful financial consequence, can the Court ensure that the MDE will follow its orders," the judge said in his June 2021 order.
Responding on Friday evening to Guthmann's statement, Walz administration officials pointed to the judge's June 2021 contempt finding.
"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 incur sanctions and legal penalties," education officials said in a statement emailed by Walz spokeswoman Claire Lancaster.
On Thursday, Walz was sharply critical of Guthmann's ruling.
"I would hope there would be an investigation into that," Walz told reporters Thursday. "I was speechless, unbelievable that this ruling could come down. (I) did not really know what to say. Obviously, we had to honor it but at that point I said, we have got to continue to push the federal government and the FBI to do the investigation."
Walz said he was also frustrated that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food nutrition grant programs, did not take state education officials' concerns seriously. The alleged fraud spanned across President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden's administrations.
Wednesday, the education department filed a claim against Feeding Our Future seeking to recover $583,915 it spent on legal fees.
The previous day, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger announced the indictments against Feeding Our Future CEO Aimee Bock and 47 others, accusing them of conspiracy and fraud.
The indictments say Feeding Our Future sponsored more than 200 meal sites across Minnesota, each claiming to serve thousands of kids every day, but said very few meals were served and most of the kids on the paperwork submitted were simply invented.