The Justice Department on Tuesday announced federal criminal charges against 47 defendants alleged to have participated in a massive $250 million fraud to collect pandemic aid funds.
The defendants are accused of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery as part of what the government says was a Minnesota-based scheme to steal Federal Child Nutrition Program funds that were meant to reimburse the cost of meals provided for needy children during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The meals were never served — and the children did not exist.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray said it was the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme yet. “In partnership with agencies across government, the Justice Department will continue to bring to justice those who have exploited the pandemic for personal gain and stolen from American taxpayers,” Garland said in a statement.
U.S. Attorney Andy Luger called it “a brazen scheme of staggering proportions” and “the ultimate -get-rich-quick scheme,” noting that the defendants claimed to have served more than 125 million meals — thousands of fake meals a day over 20 months.
Prosecutors said that a nonprofit organization called Feeding Our Future and its founder, Aimee Bock, were at the core of the fraud. The group went from receiving and disbursing about $3.4 million in federal funds in 2019 to nearly $200 million in 2021, prosecutors say. Feeding Our Future was supposed to serve as a watchdog guarding against fraud, but prosecutors allege that it did the opposite, recruiting other participants in the fraudulent operations while insisting on and receiving kickbacks for sponsoring fake feeding organizations.
The government says that the defendants submitted fraudulent documents purporting to detail the children and meals served. In one case, the government alleges, a fake attendance roster was created using names from a website called listofrandomnames.com. Prosecutors said that the defendants used the money they allegedly stole to buy luxury cards, houses, jewelry and foreign real estate.
“The indictments are accusations, and many of those who were charged have said they did nothing wrong,” David Farenthold of The New York Times reports. “After a series of F.B.I. searches in January revealed the existence of the investigation, Ms. Bock told The Times that she had put in place strong antifraud measures and did not believe anyone in her system had broken the rules.”