The Justice Department is charging Minnesota defendants with stealing $250 million intended to feed low-income children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Justice has indicted 47 people in the state of Minnesota for allegedly participating in a “outrageous scheme” to steal $250 million from a federal program providing food to low-income children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the “egregious conspiracy to steal public funds earmarked for the care of children in need … constitutes the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme to date.”
“The defendants went to great lengths to exploit a program aimed at feeding underserved children in Minnesota amid the COVID-19 pandemic and fraudulently stole millions of dollars earmarked for the program for their own personal use Advantage diverted,” Wray said.
Prosecutors say the defendants set up businesses that claimed to provide food to tens of thousands of children across Minnesota and then sought reimbursement for those meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition programs.
Prosecutors say few meals were actually served, and the defendants used the money to buy luxury cars, real estate and jewelry.
“Instead of supporting children, the defendants enriched themselves,” the Justice Department said.
Many of the companies claiming to serve food were sponsored by a nonprofit organization called Feeding Our Future, which submitted the companies’ claims for reimbursement.
Feeding Our Future founder and executive director Aimee Bock was among those charged Tuesday, and authorities say she and others within her organization filed the fraudulent claims for reimbursement and received kickbacks.
Bock’s attorney Kenneth Udoibok said the indictment “does not indicate guilt or innocence.” He said he would not comment further until he saw the indictment.
In interviews after law enforcement raided multiple locations in January, including Bock’s home and offices, Bock denied stealing money and said she never saw evidence of fraud.
Andy Luger, the US Attorney for Minnesota, said during a news conference that the government has been billed for more than 125 million fake meals, with some defendants making up children’s names using an online random name generator.
He showed a reimbursement form claiming that one location served exactly 2,500 meals each day Monday through Friday — without a child ever falling ill or otherwise missing from the program. “These kids were just made up,” Luger said.
He said the government has recovered $50 million in funds and property so far and expects more recoveries.
The defendants face charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery, the Justice Department said.
“Taking advantage of a government program designed to feed children at the time of a national crisis is the epitome of greed,” Special Agent in Charge Justin Campbell of the Internal Revenue Agency said in Tuesday’s statement.