St. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Tim Waltz on Thursday hit back at critics who say his administration should have done more to thwart what federal prosecutors called scheme to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic defrauding the US government of at least $250 million.

Waltz said the Minnesota Department of Education’s hands were tied by the court’s order to resume meal program payments, despite concerns raised by the state. And he said the FBI has asked the state to continue paying the restitution while the investigation continues.

Federal authorities on Tuesday announced charges against 48 people in Minnesota on conspiracy and other points in what they said was the largest fraud scheme related to the pandemic yet. Many of the companies that claimed to serve food to low-income children were sponsors of a a non-profit organization called Feeding Our Future.

The defendants allegedly created companies that claimed to provide food to tens of thousands of children across Minnesota and then sought reimbursement through Feeding our Future from the USDA’s child nutrition programs. But prosecutors said there were few dinners and the defendants spent the money on luxury cars, property and jewelry. So far, the government has returned $50 million.

“We caught this fraudster. We caught him very early. We alerted the right people, Waltz said at a press conference in his first detailed public appearance on the case. – We were taken to court. We were sued. We were threatened with imprisonment. We stuck to it.”

The governor said his administration noticed the violations “very early” and alerted the USDA during President Donald Trump’s administration. Waltz said he couldn’t remember exactly when he first learned of the suspicions.

Court documents show that Feeding Our Future applied to sponsor the program in the spring of 2020, and that the state agency began trying to break it up in October 2020.

Waltz said it “needs to be re-examined” why the USDA didn’t take the state’s concern seriously when it first sounded the alarm. The state agency says its concerns were not taken seriously until it contacted the FBI in April 2021. The FBI eventually executed a series of search warrants in January 2022 and released partial information about the investigation, effectively ending the alleged scheme.

Waltz also noted that in April 2021, Ramsey County District Judge John Gutman ordered the state to resume payments and held the state agency in contempt of court. Waltz suggested the judge’s order was costly.

“Most of the money was after we were forced to keep paying, not before,” he said.

It wasn’t until President Joe Biden that the FBI began to act, Waltz said. But he said Education Commissioner Heather Mueller has been ordered by the FBI not to say anything that could jeopardize the investigation.

“My team and I couldn’t say anything because the FBI was actively investigating and we were told not to,” he said.

Waltz also said he would like to see an investigation into the judge’s order to reinstate the payments, though he did not say who should conduct that investigation. The judiciary is independent in accordance with the constitutional separation of powers.

“I lost the gift of language,” said the governor. – It is unbelievable that this decision will come, I really did not know what to say. Obviously, we had to honor that. … I wouldn’t have believed in a million years that they would rule this way.”

Republicans were quick to blast the Waltz administration for not doing more — and sooner — to stop the scheme and for not appealing a judge’s order to restore the payments. They also tried to pin the blame on Attorney General Keith Ellison and State Auditor Julie Blach, even though their powers to monitor the Feeding Our Future program appeared minimal at best.

“This is the largest case of COVID fraud in the country because MDE failed to do its job,” Minnesota Senate Education Committee Chairman Roger Chamberlain said Tuesday. “The fraud was started and continued because MDE failed to do due diligence on these bad actors. They may have helped the investigation, but it’s too little, too late.”

GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen called on Walz to ask for Mueller’s resignation.

Burr Waltz said the GOP criticism was unwarranted and defended his commissioner.

“It’s amazing to me that we find people in the political sphere who are more angry that they can’t blame us for everything rather than admit that we had criminals that we caught,” the governor said.

When he announced the charges Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said his office and the FBI were “working at breakneck speed” until January 2022 to bring the scheme to a halt. Asked if the Minnesota Department of Education did anything wrong in its handling of the matter, Luger said, “That’s not for me to say.”

But Luger added: “We are pleased with the cooperation — the thorough cooperation — that we have received from MDE throughout this investigation. …I blame the defendants who committed, concealed and implemented this scheme.”

On Wednesday, the state asked another judge overseeing the dissolution of Feeding our Future to order the group to repay more than $580,000 it paid to defend itself against what it called a “sham lawsuit.”

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