MINNEAPOLIS -- The Justice Department on Tuesday announced charges against 47 people accused of stealing $250 million from a federal program designed to provide meals for needy children during the pandemic, CNN reported.
According to the department, the scheme is the largest Covid-19-related fraud uncovered by investigators to date. The defendants are facing a range of charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and paying and receiving illegal kickbacks.
The defendants, prosecutors said, set up a network of shell companies connected to the Minnesota-based nonprofit Feeding our Future, to exploit the federal child nutrition program, which is designed to provide meals to children from low-income families. The program was expanded by Congress at the start of the pandemic to allow more organizations to participate.
Feeding Our Future's founder and executive director, Aimee Bock, was among those indicted, and authorities say she and others in her organization submitted the fraudulent claims for reimbursement and received kickbacks.
Bock's attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, said the indictment "doesn't indicate guilt or innocence." He said he wouldn't comment further until seeing the indictment.
In interviews after law enforcement searched multiple sites in January, including Bock's home and offices, Bock denied stealing money and said she never saw evidence of fraud.
Documents say Bock oversaw the scheme and that she and Feeding Our Future sponsored the opening of nearly 200 federal child nutrition program sites throughout the state, knowing that the sites intended to submit fraudulent claims
"Feeding Our Future employees recruited individuals and entities to open Federal Child Nutrition Program sites throughout the state of Minnesota," the Justice Department said in a release. "These sites, created and operated by the defendants and others, fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children a day within just days or weeks of being formed."
The Department of Justice alleges that despite Feeding Our Future's knowledge of their own fraudulent claims, they still submitted them to the Minnesota Department of Education, which administered and oversaw the federal program for the state.
"This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions," said US Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minnesota. "These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they prioritized their own greed, stealing more than a quarter of a billion dollars in federal funds to purchase luxury cars, houses, jewelry, and coastal resort property abroad."
"The company went from receiving and disbursing approximately $3.4 million in federal funds to sites under its sponsorship in 2019 to nearly $200 million in 2021," part of the indictment read. "In all, Feeding Our Future fraudulently obtained and disbursed more than $240 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds during the Covid-19 pandemic," it continued.
The defendants claimed to be feeding thousands of children per day, prosecutors said. To keep up the ruse, the defendants allegedly submitted false invoices for food served to the children and lists of fake names to show who was fed.
Additionally, the Minnesota Department of Education was given "false assurances" that Feeding Our Future was serving the meals as claimed after the department "attempted to perform necessary oversight regarding the number of sites and amount of claims being submitted," according to the DOJ.
According to prosecutors, the defendants used the proceeds of the scheme to buy real estate in Minnesota, Kenya and Turkey, luxury cars, jewelry, to fund international travel, and more.
The department began scrutinizing Feeding Our Future's site applications more carefully, and denied dozens of them. In response, Bock sued the department in November 2020, alleging discrimination, saying the majority of her sites were based in immigrant communities. That case has since been dismissed.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Luger said an unspecified number of people were arrested in the morning, but some defendants are not presently in the US.
The Associate Press contributed to this report.
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