federal authorities charged 47 people in Minnesota on conspiracy and other charges Tuesday in what they said was a massive scheme that took advantage of the pandemic to steal $250 million from a federal program that provides meals to low-income children.
Federal prosecutor Andrew Luger called it “the largest pandemic fraud in the United States.”.
Luger said the defendants are charged with federal crimes including “conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and paying and receiving illegal bribes,” the station reported.
Luger said the defendants took $250 million from a federal child nutrition program, which was to be used to “feed children in need.” Instead, Luger alleges, the defendants “primarily pocketed the money for themselves.”
Prosecutors say the defendants created businesses that claimed to be providing meals to tens of thousands of children across Minnesota, and then sought reimbursement for those meals through the US Department of Agriculture’s food nutrition programs. Prosecutors say few meals were actually served and the defendants used the money to buy luxury cars, property and jewelry.
Many of the businesses that claimed to be serving food were sponsored by a nonprofit organization called Feeding Our Future, which filed the businesses’ reimbursement claims. Feeding Our Future founder and CEO Aimee Bock was among those charged, and authorities say she and others in her organization submitted the fraudulent claims for reimbursement and received bribes.
Bock’s attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, said he would not comment until he had a chance to see the indictment, but that the indictment “does not indicate guilt or innocence.”
In an interview earlier this year, Bock denied stealing any money and said he never saw evidence of fraud.
The defendants face multiple charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery.
Earlier this year, the US Department of Justice made it a priority to prosecute pandemic-related fraud. The department has already taken enforcement action related to more than $8 billion in suspected pandemic fraud, including filing charges in more than 1,000 criminal cases involving losses greater than $1.1 billion.
According to court documents, the alleged scheme targeted the USDA’s federal child nutrition programs, which provide food to low-income children and adults. In Minnesota, the funds are administered by the state Department of Education, and historically, meals have been provided to children through educational programs, such as schools or daycare centers.
The sites that serve the food are sponsored by public or nonprofit groups, such as Feeding Our Future. The sponsoring agency keeps 10% to 15% of the reimbursement funds as an administrative fee in exchange for filing claims, sponsoring the sites, and disbursing the funds.
But during the pandemic, some of the standard requirements for sites to participate in federal food nutrition programs have been lifted. Among them, the USDA allowed for-profit restaurants to participate and allowed food distribution outside of educational programs. Charging documents say the defendants exploited changes in program requirements “to enrich themselves.”
The documents say Bock oversaw the scheme and that she and Feeding Our Future sponsored the opening of nearly 200 federal child nutrition program sites across the state, knowing the sites were intended to file fraudulent claims. “The sites fraudulently claimed that they were serving meals to thousands of children a day within days or weeks of their creation and despite having little or no staff and little or no experience serving this volume of meals,” according to the indictments.
Feeding Our Future received nearly $18 million in federal child nutrition program funding as administrative fees in 2021 alone, and Bock and other employees received additional kickbacks, which were often disguised as “consulting fees” paid to shell companies, according to reports. charging documents.
According to an FBI affidavit unsealed earlier this year, Feeding Our Future received $307,000 in USDA rebates in 2018, $3.45 million in 2019, and $42.7 million in 2020. The amount of the rebates increased to $197.9 million in 2021.
Court documents say the Minnesota Department of Education was increasingly concerned about the rapid increase in the number of sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future, as well as the increase in refunds.
The department began to take a closer look at Feeding Our Future site requests and turned down dozens of them. In response, Bock sued the department in November 2020, alleging discrimination and saying most of its sites are located in immigrant communities. That case has since been dismissed.