The Justice Department accuses defendants in Minnesota of stealing $250 million intended to feed low-income children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The US Department of Justice has indicted 47 people in the state of Minnesota for allegedly participating in an “outrageous plan” to steal $250 million from a federal program that provides food to low-income children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the “outrageous plot to steal public funds intended to care for children in need … amounts to the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme to date.”
“The defendants have gone to great lengths to operate a program designed to feed underprivileged children in Minnesota amid the COVID-19 pandemic, fraudulently diverting millions of dollars earmarked for the program for their benefit. own personal gain,” Wray said.
Prosecutors say the defendants founded companies that claimed to provide food to tens of thousands of children throughout Minnesota, and then sought reimbursement for those meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food nutrition programs.
Prosecutors say few meals were served and the defendants used the money to buy luxury cars, real estate and jewelry.
“Instead of feeding children, the defendants enriched themselves,” the Justice Department said.
Many of the companies that claimed to serve food were sponsored by a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future, which filed 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 in her organization filed the fraudulent claims for refund and received kickbacks.
Bock’s lawyer Kenneth Udoibok said the charges “do not indicate guilt or innocence”. He said he would not comment further until he saw the charges.
In interviews after police searched multiple sites in January, including Bock’s home and offices, Bock denied stealing money and said she never saw any evidence of fraud.
Andy Luger, the US attorney for Minnesota, said at a news conference that the government had charged more than 125 million fake meals, with some defendants sending names for children using an online random name generator.
He showed one reimbursement form that claimed a site served exactly 2,500 meals Monday through Friday — with no kids ever getting sick or otherwise missing out on the program. “These kids were just invented,” Luger said.
He said the government has so far recovered $50 million in funds and property and expects to get more back.
The suspects are charged with conspiracy, wire transfer fraud, money laundering and bribery, the Justice Department said.
“Exploiting a government program designed to feed children in a time of national crisis is the epitome of greed,” Internal Revenue Agency special officer Justin Campbell said in Tuesday’s statement.