A group of 47 people allegedly took $250 million in federal money meant to go to children’s nutrition programs in what officials are calling the largest pandemic fraud case yet.
The Department of Justice announced criminal charges on Tuesday against the group, who were all connected to the Minnesota nonprofit Feeding Our Future. They are accused of devising a scheme to defraud the Federal Child Nutrition Program, taking more than $200 million that was intended as reimbursements for serving free meals to children in need. But instead of feeding children, the complaint alleges that they used the money for luxury vehicles, property, jewelry, and international travel.
“Today’s indictments describe an egregious plot to steal public funds meant to care for children in need in what amounts to the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme yet,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. “The defendants went to great lengths to exploit a program designed to feed underserved children in Minnesota amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, fraudulently diverting millions of dollars designated for the program for their own personal gain.”
The charges against them include conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and bribery.
Before the pandemic, the Federal Child Nutrition Program provided free meals to children in need via educational programs. But when schools shut down, the government waived some of the requirements for participation, allowing restaurants to participate and also allowing food to be handed out away from campuses. Feeding Our Future exploited the changes to the program, authorities said, and employees allegedly recruited people to open new program sites.
At the new sites, they claimed to be serving 1,000 meals to children a day, prosecutors said, submitting false documents and fake meal count sheets. The defendants have also been accused of submitting false invoices and fabricating attendance rosters with the fake names and ages, in one case allegedly taking names from the website listofrandomnames.com. According to the complaint, a column of ages in one spreadsheet used an Excel formula to insert a random number between 7 and 17.
Among the 47 defendants is Aimee Bock, founder and executive director of Feeding Our Future, who is accused of overseeing the fraud scheme.
Bock’s attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, told BuzzFeed News that an indictment “does not signify guilty or innocence” and said that he was “surprised that Ms. Bock has been indicted because she did nothing worthy of an indictment.”
In a statement, US Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minnesota described the actions of Bock and her codefendants as a brazen scheme.
These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “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.”