ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - As Minnesota temporarily put the brakes on dozens of new meal locations sponsored by Feeding Our Future in spring 2021, a state lawmaker was privately lobbying for one new site to be added to the system.
State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, sought help for a nonprofit in her legislative district. The group ultimately won a rare approval from state regulators as more than 100 other pending applications sat.
Feeding Our Future was a prime sponsor for meal sites meant to feed kids during the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal prosecutors have indicted 49 people in what they describe as the biggest pandemic fraud case in the country, which they estimate at $250 million.
By fall 2020, officials at the Minnesota Department of Education suspected fraud. They stopped processing applications for new meal sites and later stopped making payments to the nonprofit, triggering a lawsuit from Feeding Our Future.
With the legal battle intensifying in April 2021, Feeding Our Future’s lawyer said Pappas came to the group that month asking for help on behalf of the nonprofit, House of Refuge.
"Feeding Our Future's executive director personally assured Sen. Pappas that Feeding Our Future would do all it could to help," Rhyddid Watkins said in a motion asking a Ramsey County judge to hold education officials in contempt.
Feeding Our Future submitted an application for House of Refuge on April 13, court records indicate. On June 1, the state approved House of Refuge's application.
It was the only application state officials approved as 143 others sat in limbo, Watkins said in a June 23 hearing.
Through a Senate DFL spokesman, Pappas said she never contacted Feeding Our Future.
"She contacted the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) asking that House of Refuge, the St. Paul social services organization, be approved to receive a grant - through Feeding our Future - to continue House of Refuge's ongoing efforts to provide food to families and children," said Marc Kimball, the DFL spokesman.
Pappas made a site visit to House of Refuge's food warehouse on May 26, 2021, and then made her request to state education officials in June, Kimball said. That was the same month that the state approved House of Refuge's application.
"As she was advocating for House of Refuge food program, she had no idea about any problems with Feeding our Future," Kimball said.
No one from House of Refuge has been indicted or publicly accused of wrongdoing in the current case. Sharon Ross, House of Refuge's executive director, said she wasn't aware of the specific issue FOX 9 was asking about.
"I've been told not to comment on anything," Ross said in a brief telephone interview.
State education officials do not have records showing that House of Refuge received any federal money through Feeding Our Future. In fact, Feeding Our Future reversed the only claim it submitted for House of Refuge, said Kevin Burns, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
Based on the sites that House of Refuge was operating under a second meal program, sponsor Partners in Nutrition claimed $2.7 million in reimbursement. State officials denied more than $1 million in additional claims, Burns said. The state later suspended payments to Partners in Nutrition. The group has sued the state.
The alleged fraud has led to finger pointing during this fall's campaign.
Last month, DFL Gov. Tim Walz called for an investigation into Judge John Guthmann, whom he falsely accused of forcing the state to restart payments to nonprofit Feeding Our Future in 2021. Guthmann issued a rare rebuke, saying that Minnesota education officials made all payments voluntarily.
In his 2021 order, Guthmann held state officials in contempt for failing to process the 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.