'A brazen scheme': 47 charged with siphoning $250M from COVID-19 child meal program
WASHINGTON – Federal authorities unveiled charges against 47 people Tuesday accused of siphoning $250 million from a coronavirus pandemic relief program designed to provide meals for children in the largest pandemic-related fraud scheme brought so far by the Justice Department.
Prosecutors described "a brazen scheme of staggering proportions" that exploited a federally funded program to serve needy children in Minnesota during the pandemic.
U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger, the chief federal prosecutor in Minnesota, said the suspects used a local nonprofit known as "Feeding Our Future" as a cover to claim reimbursements for meals never provided and allegedly used the federal money to buy luxury cars, houses, jewelry and resort property abroad.
"I commend the work of the skilled investigators and prosecutors who unraveled the lies, deception, and mountains of false documentation to bring this complex case to light," Luger said.
Coronavirus watch: COVID telehealth fraud cost Medicare $128M in first year
Attorney General Merrick Garland described the federal action as the most extensive fraud case to emerge from the government's massive pandemic relief effort.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said the allegations represented "an egregious plot" led by suspects who "went to great lengths" to divert a quarter of a billion dollars to enrich themselves.
The Minnesota nonprofit, according to court documents, redirected money provided by the Federal Child Nutrition Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to provide free meals to children in need.
Federal prosecutors said the operation was allegedly overseen by Aimee Bock, founder and executive director of the local nonprofit, whose federal aid disbursements dramatically increased from $3.4 million in 2019 to nearly $200 million in 2021.
The organization, according to court records, "fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children a day within just days or weeks of being formed."
DOJ charges:Justice charges 21 linked to COVID fraud schemes. Fake vaccine card makers among suspects.
"The defendants created dozens of shell companies to enroll in the program as Federal Child Nutrition Program sites. The defendants also created shell companies to receive and launder the proceeds of their fraudulent scheme," prosecutors said.
Prosecutors accused the suspects of submitting false meal counts, fake food purchase invoices and fabricated attendance rosters, some of which were drawn from the website listofrandomnames.com.
"Because the program only reimbursed for meals served to children, other defendants used a computer formula to insert random ages between 7 and 17 into the age column of the rosters," officials said.
When the Minnesota Department of Education sought to verify the nonprofit's activities, Bock allegedly "gave false assurances" that the organization was monitoring its 250 sites across the state and was serving the meals as claimed.
"When MDE employees pressed Bock for clarification, Bock accused MDE of discrimination and unfairly scrutinizing Feeding Our Future’s sites," prosecutors said.
Bock's group, according to court documents, went as far as filing a lawsuit against the state when the Education Department began denying the group's applications for future feeding sites. Bock's group accused the state of discrimination in violation of Minnesota's Human Rights Act.
Bock, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, was expected to make a first court appearance Tuesday afternoon in Minnesota, along with more than two dozen other suspects.
"Exploiting a government program intended to feed children at the time of a national crisis is the epitome of greed,” said Justin Campbell, special agent in charge of the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation Division in Chicago. “As alleged, the defendants charged in this case chose to enrich themselves at the expense of children. Instead of feeding the future, they chose to steal from the future."