Crook Bastard Nonprofits Took Pandemic Money, Put Fraud On Minnesota Food Programs, Allegedly.
In an infuriating story this week, the New York Times blows the lid off a bunch of perhaps sleazy nonprofits in Minnesota that the federal government is accusing of taking part in a "massive fraud scheme" that allegedly took tens of millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds that were meant to feed hungry kids, but mostly just billed the government for meals that never existed. Well that's just dandy, and you'd better believe it's going to be used by rightwing politicians and media to oppose helping people in the future.
In court filings, the Justice Department said at least 15 different nonprofits were being investigated in the scheme; the FBI said in the documents that the groups had taken in some $65 million in total from emergency federal food programs. The larger nonprofit group that oversaw those groups, "Feeding Our Future," apparently fell down on its main job of making sure the taxpayer money was used in accordance with federal rules.
Also, goddamn it.
“Almost none of this money was used to feed children,” the government wrote in one filing. “Instead, conspirators misappropriated the money and used it to purchase real estate, cars and other items.”
Rat Bastards Are Why We Can't Have Nice Things
The story, by financial reporter and Doktor Zoom's imaginary boyfriend David Fahrenthold, is just full of moments that will make you want to yell at someone, like this:
When a reporter recently visited the address listed for Advance Youth Athletic Development, there was no sign of a kitchen or a large child care facility. It was a second-story apartment.
“No. No. No,” said Lul Mohamoud, a neighbor in the apartment across the hall, when asked if she had ever seen 5,000 children there. “I have never seen any kids going in there.”
Advance Youth Athletic Development may not have been feeding any kids there, but it managed to get $3.2 million in federal funds through the state of Minnesota anyway. Nice non-work if you can get it, or apparently, just make it up.
Full disclosure: This story's so good that Yr Editrix had to warn me not to just blockquote the whole thing, which is very, very tempting. Instead, here's a paywall-free linky so you can read it and then cuss and spit yourself.
Fahrenthold scrupulously notes that, as of yet, nobody has been charged with a crime, and that leaders of Feeding our Future and the athletic supporter bunch have denied any wrongdoing, because it's all just a big misunderstanding, don't you see?
Also too, the story asks a very important question about how the federal government goes about getting aid to people who need it: Instead of directly dealing with the government, people who qualify for many federal programs end up getting help from nonprofits that the government pays to deliver assistance. And for doing this important work, the nonprofits get a fee.
Hello, rightwing fulminations about the inefficiency of Big Government! It turns out that funneling taxpayer funds through a bunch of nonprofits "can increase vulnerability to fraud." So instead of government bureaucrats, we get "public-private partnerships" that often work out fine. In the case of the Agriculture Department food programs in the Minnesota cases, federal money is channeled through nonprofits called "sponsors" — like Feeding Our Future — which direct the money to smaller nonprofits, and from there, to daycare centers or schools or summer programs that get the food to hungry kids around the state.
Tell Us Again About Government Inefficiency?
Here's where we get into Milo Minderbinder territory, since everyone gets a share:
In theory, the nonprofit groups that fill the sponsor role make sure that feeding sites follow the rules, then hand out federal money to those that do.
The watchdogs can keep as an “administrative fee” up to 15 percent of the funds they pass along. Critics say that creates a perverse incentive: a reason for the watchdog not to bark. The structure, they say, rewards sponsors that pursue bigger networks and larger checks instead of those who crack down on fraud — a problem that has been evident for decades.
It's all very nice and efficient, at least until it isn't. In Minnesota, it turns out, according to local reporting from the Star-Tribune and nonprofit media joint Sahan Journal, that some of the people involved In Fooding Future Faces had criminal records, which they are not supposed to.
Fahrenthold also discovers that since it became a sponsor in 2018, Farting On Food has had a wee bit of trouble keeping its own paperwork straight, let alone supervising other nonprofits. The IRS revoked its nonprofit status in early 2020 because, oops, it hadn't filed annual reports for three years, although in December 2021 that status was restored.
Also scream-out-loud absurd: Ben Stayberg, a bartender/electrician dude whose name appeared on the group's paperwork as president of Fuck Food and Find Out's three-person oversight board from 2018 to 2020, said he hadn't actually done anything like oversight, and that he had actually been snookered into the position.
“I had a friend, she was like, ‘Will you just sign, put your name on there?’” he said in an interview. “I was like, ‘All right.’” Mr. Stayberg declined to give the friend’s name.
See, that's friendship and loyalty, is what that is.
Oh For Fuckssake
Once the pandemic hit, it seems Fleecing Our Future was in the right place at the right time to up its game, and it sure looks like it did every bit as well as a little league coach called up to the Majors would have. Congress had buckets of money to get food assistance to people, but to get it out more quickly, a bunch of accountability rules got waived, like a requirement that state inspectors show up to see if actual meals were being served to actual children.
After that, Feeding Our Future began to grow rapidly, adding dozens of new sites to its network. Some of them were start-up nonprofits that had sprung up during the pandemic and never served food before.
There are all sorts of funtragic details, like the 2500 children supposedly going to two different childcare centers in a single small building, or the restaurant that was supposedly feeding way more children than lived in its zip code.
But Aimee Bock, the founder and president of Feeding Our Future, explained that the address for the daycares was wrong in state records, you see, and also that the restaurant served lots of kids from nearby areas.
The head guy at Advance Youth Athletic Development, Guhaad Said, also said he was shocked, shocked to learn that the state said he'd been paid to feed 5,000 in that little empty apartment.
“I don’t know where that number came from,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t know where the 5,000 children came from.”
That number appeared on the group’s application to enroll in one of the food-aid programs, which Feeding Our Future submitted to the state.
Oh, well other than THAT, everything was fine. Also too, Bock told Fahrenthold that she didn't think anyone in the network of groups Fungible Futurama had been cheating.
But if there was fraud, she added, “every test we have in place and every protection we have in place didn’t catch it. Is it possible? Absolutely. And if they got one over on us, I will help hold them accountable.”
For his part, Said said (we liked typing that) that if there were any problems, then it was definitely not his fault, not his fault:
“There was not proper oversight” from Feeding Our Future, he said. “So people may have made some mistakes here and there. But there was no intention to go out there and waste government money.”
Again, innocent until proven grifty, no charges filed, and all that, so we'll assume everyone here will have their day in court or in plea bargain, or maybe even paperwork problems by the state will exonerate everyone and they'll all have a good laugh over the silly mistake.
The bigger question, though, is why the hell we're farming out what should be government responsibilities — feeding people, getting medical equipment to hospitals in a pandemic, all of it — to private groups that seem prone to fraud, in the name of "small government"? We bet Norway doesn't have this problem, damnit.
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