Editorial Roundup: Minnesota

Minneapolis Star Tribune. September 22, 2022.

Editorial: Stealing from Minnesota’s future

Needy kids, taxpayers and the state’s reputation are among the victims.

News that a nonprofit director and more than four dozen others have been charged in a vast scheme to steal from the government — and needy children — is another embarrassment for Minnesota. The sheer number of alleged participants and the amount of money involved is astounding.

This week, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced indictments against Feeding Our Future Executive Director Aimee Bock and 47 other defendants. They are accused of taking more than $250 million in taxpayer funds that were supposed to help feed children during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal funds were sent to the Minnesota Education Department to distribute to local food programs.

Prosecutors in this case and related ongoing investigations must get to the bottom of how and why this massive abuse of public funds happened.

Prosecutors accused Bock of recruiting many of those who conspired to skim funds from the federal program. And prosecutors say Bock knowingly submitted more than 125 million false meal claims.

Luger described the scheme as the largest pandemic fraud in the country and one of the largest federal fraud cases ever brought in Minnesota.

Those indicted “engaged in a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” Luger said. “Their goal was to make as much money for themselves as they could while falsely claiming to feed children during the pandemic.”

Among the charges are conspiracy, money laundering, bribery and wire fraud. The indictments allege that conspirators submitted fake invoices and enrollment forms with fictitious names. They are accused of falsely claiming to have purchased food and distributed it to millions of kids.

Feeding Our Future had agreements to sponsor more than 200 sites to help deliver food to children during the pandemic. The organization went from a $300,000 operation in 2018 to $197 million in 2021. Prosecutors allege that some of the money instead was spent on luxury cars, homes and trips.

The fraud scheme was allegedly carried out by several leaders in local politics, business, housing and education, some of whom are members of the East African community in the Twin Cities. Should they be found guilty, those individuals — not their entire immigrant group — should be blamed.

Keep in mind that thousands of lower-income children of East African descent were supposed to receive never-delivered meals. The funds were supposed to prevent hunger — not pad the pockets of those running the programs.

Another damaging outcome of this sordid case is that Minnesota, once a national model for government efficiency and transparency, is again receiving national attention for dysfunction. It’s also troubling that two of those charged are former Minneapolis city officials — one who served as an aide to Mayor Jacob Frey and the other a former board chair of the Public Housing Authority.

Granted, many state and federal offices were under pressure to get social service emergency funding out the door quickly during the pandemic. But there still should have been proper criteria and monitoring to prevent abuse. This case is yet another painful example of how government programs can fail to provide basic oversight.

Fortunately, Minnesotans can be confident that Luger’s office is on the case. His record suggests that all of those responsible for this mess will be held accountable.

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Mankato Free Press. September 25, 2022.

Editorial: Justice: Cameras in courts critical for transparency

The apex of the unraveling of civil society could come one day with the courts, given the injustice that dwells there, where transparency is often distant and confidence is waning.

So it should be in the interest of jurists and others to open the courts, to shine light on the justice and injustice and allow the governed to see in what ways and circumstances freedom is lost. To experience that in Minnesota now, one has to physically go to a courtroom, during working hours and spend long spans of time figuring out what procedure matters.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The Minnesota Supreme Court heard testimony last week urging it to expand its narrow rule, which currently only allows cameras in courtrooms once a trial has ended. Cameras are allowed only at sentencings, and even then there are restrictions, some of which seem unfair. Victims can opt out of being photographed, defendants cannot.

The efforts to open courts to cameras has been years long, as the courts considered a pilot project of limited degree. A committee commissioned by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea was tasked about a year ago with examining the results of the pilot program and recommending to the Supreme Court if the program should be expanded.

The committee, made up of judges, lawyers and victims’ advocates, but no journalists, took testimony and statements from journalists, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and victims’ advocates over a year-long process. It recommended to the Supreme Court that use of cameras should not be expanded.

The Supreme Court took testimony last week from six people (including Free Press Managing Editor Joe Spear and Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian). Five represented the media and the public and the other was the judge who presided over the committee.

While the preponderance of evidence, overwhelming at times, showed there was no harm done to the institution of justice and no harm or complaints in any of the cases where cameras where allowed, the committee recommended against expansion stating there “could” be disruptions to trials and there “could” be harm to victims and there “could” be a tainting of the jury pool. But no evidence of such harm was provided.

Beyond the seven-year pilot program where much information and experience was gathered, recent high profile cases in the George Floyd murder and Daunte Wright manslaughter cases were livestreamed in their entirety, serving as another significant experiment of use in cameras in courts.

Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over the trial of Derek Chaving in the death of Floyd, told the committee and the Supreme Court that while he once was against use of cameras in the court room, he now was much in favor of it. Cahill wrote to the committee and court that “State v. Chauvin has changed my opinion such that I now believe cameras in the courtroom can be helpful in promoting trust and confidence in the judicial process and are sometimes necessary to safeguard both the defendant’s right to a public trial and the public’s right of access to criminal trials.”

With that, we could easily rest our case, but the court’s decision is still very much uncertain.

Ramsey County District Judge Richard H. Kyle Jr., who presided over the committee that took volumes of testimony and dug deep to study the issue, told the Star Tribune after the hearing that there may be some further opening of camera access.

Courts are one of the most powerful institutions in American democracy. They decide freedom of the governed every day. The governed should be able to easily see how that works.

Expanded camera access to include trials will build trust in the judicial system, enlighten the people and serve democracy. In the end, the truth is the truth. A camera doesn’t change that; it only shows it.

END