The Department of Justice charged 47 people on Tuesday with federal crimes for their alleged roles in a scheme to steal $250 million from a federally-funded pandemic food program for children. According to the DOJ, the plot was the largest COVID-19 fraud scheme in the nation.
According to the charging documents, the defendants plotted to exploit changes in the Federal Child Nutrition Program meant to help provide food to underserved children during the pandemic. The program typically works by distributing federal funds to state governments. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Education uses these funds to reimburse agencies that sponsor specific food distribution sites. The sponsoring agencies are responsible for overseeing the sites and retain between 10 and 15 percent of the reimbursements to cover administrative costs. During the pandemic, some of the standard requirements for participation in the program were relaxed, allowing for-profit restaurant participation and off-site food distribution outside of educational programs.
One of the defendants, Aimee Bock, was the founder and executive director of one of these sponsors, named Feeding Our Future. Feeding Our Future’s federal reimbursements totaled $3.4 million in 2019. They grew to about $200 million in 2021. According to the DOJ, Feeding Our Future recruited individuals and entities to open new food distribution sites throughout the state of Minnesota, which fraudulently claimed to be serving thousands of meals within days or weeks of opening.
The defendants allegedly used shell companies to enroll in the program and to receive and launder stolen proceeds. They further submitted false documentation to the program, fabricating meal count sheets, food purchase invoices, and attendance rosters. At least one roster was created by pulling names from www.listofrandomnames.com and using an Excel formula to insert a random age between seven and 17 into the age column. After receiving reimbursements from the Minnesota Department of Education and paying the individuals and entities operating the fraudulent distribution sites, Feeding Our Future netted more than $18 million in administrative fees. It also allegedly received bribes and kickbacks from the individuals and entities running the sponsored sites.
The DOJ asserts that the defendants used the fraudulently obtained funds to buy luxury vehicles, residential and commercial real estate, and international vacations.
DOJ charges 47 with stealing $250 million from a pandemic food program for kids, NPR (September 20, 2022)
U.S. Attorney Announces Federal Charges Against 47 Defendants in $250 Million Feeding Our Future Fraud Scheme, The United States Department of Justice (September 20, 2022)
Image Credit: Pixel-Shot / Shutterstock.com