Appeal panel backs disqualification of St. Paul nonprofit that sponsored food sites where fraud is alleged – Twin Cities

The Minnesota Department of Education’s appeals panel has upheld the department’s decision in May to terminate a nonprofit organization in St. Paul’s participation in a federal food program at the center of the alleged $250 million fraud.

No one at Partners in Nutrition, which sponsors sites that distribute free food to children, has been charged with a crime. But some of the sponsor’s clients are among the 50 people charged in federal court.

The Department of Education informed the nonprofit in May that it was terminating Partners in Nutrition’s participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program and halting reimbursements.

Partners in Nutrition challenged that decision, but the department’s own appeals panel — led by Assistant Commissioner Stephanie Burrage — concluded that the federal grant regulation the department relied on for its action applies to the food program.

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The panel also noted that Partners in Nutrition’s program contract gives the department the authority to withhold payments if the food sponsor, knowingly or not, fails to submit accurate claims.

According to the decision, Partners in Nutrition still maintains that its claims from the summer of 2021, which sought reimbursement to feed 600,000 children, were legitimate. And if any fraud did take place, the nonprofit said, it was “not a knowing participant.”

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The appeals panel said that while Partners in Nutrition did not knowingly engage in fraud, the nonprofit was responsible for providing the kind of oversight that would have prevented it from taking place.

The alleged fraud, the panel wrote, reflects Partners in Nutrition’s “failure at the organizational level to properly fulfill its role as a CACFP sponsor.”

Although Partners in Nutrition can no longer claim reimbursement for meals, their individual clients can file claims directly with the department.

Partners in Nutrition is still fighting in two other arenas for its ability to participate in the food program. A decision is pending before the state appeals court, and the nonprofit last month sued the department in federal court.

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Partners in Nutrition was one of Minnesota’s largest players in child nutrition, claiming $179 million in meal replacements last year alone, after the federal government eased rules to get more children fed during the coronavirus pandemic. The organization was founded by Aimee Bock, who went on to start rival Feeding Our Future, which sought $198 million in refunds last year.

Federal prosecutors say Bock was at the center of a fraud scheme involving false meal claims and returns. She has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and bribery.

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