The Justice Department charged 47 defendants Tuesday for allegedly defrauding a federal program that provided food for needy children during the pandemic, describing the scheme — totaling $250 million — as the largest uncovered to date targeting the government’s generous stimulus aid.
Federal prosecutors said the defendants — a network of individuals and organizations tied to Feeding Our Future, a Minnesota-based nonprofit — allegedly put the wrongly obtained federal pandemic funds toward luxury cars, houses and other personal purchases in what amounted to a case of “brazen” theft.
“These indictments, alleging the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme charged to date, underscore the Department of Justice’s sustained commitment to combating pandemic fraud and holding accountable those who perpetrate it,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.
The alleged scheme centered on the Federal Child Nutrition Program, which is administered by the Agriculture Department to provide free meals to the children of lower-income families. Congress greatly expanded the program over the course of the pandemic, including by allowing a wider array of organizations to distribute food at a larger range of locations.
The changes to federal law opened the door for Feeding Our Future to play a greater role in distributing meals, the Justice Department contends, and the group disbursed more than $200 million over the course of 2021. In doing so, though, federal prosecutors alleged the company’s founder and executive director, Aimee Bock, oversaw a vast fraud scheme across Minnesota.
The company could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.
It was the largest burst of emergency spending in U.S. history: Two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the U.S. economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.
In a yearlong investigation, The Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that cash.
Bock recruited individuals and companies that “fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children a day,” prosecutors contend. Some of the defendants created shell companies to enroll in the program and serve as sites for meal distribution, according to the government. In other cases, the Justice Department alleges that the defendants submitted the names of fake kids obtaining meals and false invoices for food purchases that never occurred.
Feeding Our Future ultimately reaped $18 million in administrative fees that in the eyes of the government it was “not entitled” to receive. Company employees also appeared to solicit “bribes and kickbacks” from individuals and companies that it sponsored, the government says.