The US Justice Department has charged 47 people in the state of Minnesota for allegedly participating in an “egregious” scheme to steal $250m from a federal programme that provides food to low-income children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the “egregious plot to steal public funds meant to care for children in need … amounts to the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme yet”.
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“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,” Wray said.
Prosecutors say the defendants created companies that claimed to be offering food to tens of thousands of children across Minnesota, then sought reimbursement for those meals through the US Department of Agriculture’s food nutrition programmes.
Prosecutors say few meals were actually served, and the defendants used the money to buy luxury cars, property and jewellery.
“Rather than feed children, the defendants enriched themselves,” the Department of Justice said.
Many of the companies that claimed to be serving food were sponsored by a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future, which submitted the companies’ claims for reimbursement.
Feeding Our Future’s founder and executive director, Aimee Bock, was among those indicted on Tuesday, and authorities say she and others in her organisation submitted the fraudulent claims for reimbursement and received kickbacks.
Bock’s lawyer, Kenneth Udoibok, said the indictment “doesn’t indicate guilt or innocence”. He said he would not 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.
Andy Luger, the US attorney for Minnesota, said during a news conference that the government was billed for more than 125 million fake meals, with some defendants making up names for children by using an online random name generator.
He displayed one form for reimbursement that claimed a site served exactly 2,500 meals each day Monday through Friday — with no children ever getting sick or otherwise missing from the programme. “These children were simply invented,” Luger said.
He said the government has so far recovered $50m in funds and property and expects to recover more.
The defendants face charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery, the Justice Department said.
“Exploiting a government program intended to feed children at the time of a national crisis is the epitome of greed,” Special Agent in Charge Justin Campbell of the Internal Revenue Agency said in Tuesday’s statement.