The political fallout from the massive federal food fraud investigation shifted Monday to state Education Commissioner Heather Mueller, who now finds herself at the center of the widening scandal.
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller called on Mueller to resign for failing to swiftly shut down Feeding Our Future even though education officials had deep concerns about the nonprofit, which allegedly directed what federal authorities are calling the largest meal fraud case in the nation.
"As Minnesotans, we expect accountability for public officials who fail to protect the taxpayers' dollars," said Miller, R-Winona. "I have no choice but to call for the Commissioner to resign."
DFL Gov. Tim Walz's administration praised Mueller's office for urgently blowing the whistle and alerting the FBI, which led to 49 people being charged so far.
Officials at the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) declined to comment, referring questions to the governor's office, which did not directly address the calls for Mueller's resignation.
"MDE blew the whistle on this fraud scheme," a spokesperson for DFL Gov. Tim Walz said in a written response to questions. "They detected it early and worked diligently to stop it. MDE repeatedly urged the federal government to investigate and they partnered with the FBI to ensure accountability — even as they fought Feeding Our Future's sham lawsuit in court."
The scandal is focusing new attention and scrutiny on Mueller, who took on the state's top education job in 2021 and runs an agency with more than 450 employees. The department is charged with educating students across Minnesota, but was called on to administer rapidly changing requirements involving the federally funded meals program during the pandemic.
Seeking to gain a political edge, GOP's candidates for statewide office held back-to-back Capitol news conferences echoing Miller's call for Mueller to step down.
"Heather Mueller should resign because she did not do her job," GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen said.
Jensen also asked for an independent investigation of Walz, who he accused of lying to the public over the role a state court judge played in the lawsuit involving Feeding Our Future. Jensen accused Walz of making the judge a "scapegoat" for his administration's mistakes.
"What is Gov. Walz trying to hide?" Jensen asked.
Walz's office didn't address criticism of his actions.
The heated political rhetoric followed last week's federal charges against Feeding Our Future director Aimee Bock and 47 other people accused of a scheme to steal $250 million from federally funded meal programs meant to feed needy children. Authorities charged a 49th suspect Monday.
Bock pleaded not guilty and has publicly denied any wrongdoing, but at least three of the accused are expected to plead guilty in the ongoing federal investigation, federal prosecutors said.
A Republican rival also accused Attorney General Keith Ellison of failing to use his investigative powers, including the right to subpoena records, to build a case of fraud against Feeding Our Future before tens of millions of dollars were handed out to the nonprofit.
Altogether, Feeding Our Future and its partners collected $197 million in 2021, up from $3.4 million in 2019.
Republican Jim Schultz, who is seeking to unseat Ellison as the state's top legal officer, accused Ellison of "extraordinary incompetence" for not leading a state investigation into Feeding Our Future. He said Ellison could have saved taxpayers more than $100 million by shutting down the nonprofit sooner.
In a written statement, Ellison spokesman John Stiles said it is unlikely that federal prosecutors could have brought charges against the conspirators without Ellison's help.
"This is what true law-enforcement cooperation looks like," Stiles said in the statement. "It is the opposite of grandstanding. At no time was Attorney General Ellison willing to compromise the integrity of the investigation by grandstanding either to reveal it or get in the way of it, which would have tipped off the perpetrators and stopped the investigation in its tracks. Instead, he sacrificed scoring political points to make sure these perpetrators of fraud were held accountable to the greatest extent."
Walz and MDE leaders also said the FBI investigation tied their hands because federal officials told them to keep quiet about the probe.
Jensen said he doesn't believe the explanation.
"I am quite confident the FBI did not … tell MDE to keep making fraudulent payments," Jensen said.
In response to a reporter's question, Walz called last week for an investigation of Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann's handling of the Feeding Our Future lawsuit, but backed off after the judge issued an unusual public rebuke saying that his actions had been misrepresented.
The controversy centers on an April 21, 2021, hearing at which the judge was asked by Feeding Our Future's attorney to address the department's decision to stop payments on about $20 million in suspicious reimbursement claims.
In January of this year, MDE issued a statement saying that "a judge told MDE that it does not have the authority to stop payment to Feeding Our Future and must continue to pay Feeding our Future's claims."
At a news conference last week, Walz said that he was "speechless" that the judge would instruct MDE to restart payments: "None of us are perfect. Maybe this was just a bad decision — all of us do it — and judicial decisions can be the same way."
Walz said he thought the evidence was "overwhelming. I would have never believed in a million years that they were going to rule this way."
However, the judge issued a statement late Friday to address what he called "inaccurate statements" by Walz, Mueller and the media. Guthmann said that MDE "voluntarily" chose to restart payments to Feeding Our Future following the April 2021 hearing.
According to a transcript of the hearing, Guthmann told the department he saw no regulation allowing it to withhold payments while taking other steps to see whether the claims were valid, referring to requiring additional receipts and other backup documents.
Guthmann told MDE's attorney: "You've put the cart before the horse."
In a May interview with the Star Tribune, Assistant Commissioner Daron Korte said the department wasn't comfortable continuing to insist on additional records without explicit approval from the USDA, which funds the meal programs.
"They [USDA] wouldn't do it," Korte said. "I don't know why."
If the department had gotten those records, Mueller acknowledged in that same interview, the state may have been able to terminate its contract with Feeding Our Future sooner.
"It may not have gotten to the level that it did, had we been able to have that information," Mueller said.
Walz has said state officials will do an "after-action report" to examine what happened with Feeding Our Future to see if any new protections can be put in place to avoid similar problems in the future.
The nonpartisan Legislative Auditor's office said last week it has started a special review of MDE's oversight of Feeding Our Future, predicting work will be done by early next year.