Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many government agencies provided assistance to struggling families.
The pandemic era changed life for everyone, with some families going from double incomes to single incomes due to company closures, and others facing personal crises like divorce.
One government department that offered aid to families in need was the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Federal Child Nutrition Program offered nutritious meals to minors whose families could not afford groceries.
Now, the Department of Justice has announced that charges are being brought against 47 individuals who stole $250 million from the program as the pandemic raged. CNN reported:
According to the department, the scheme is the largest Covid-19-related fraud uncovered by investigators to date. The defendants are facing a range of charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and paying and receiving illegal kickbacks.
The defendants, prosecutors said, set up a network of shell companies connected to the Minnesota-based nonprofit Feeding our Future, to exploit the federal child nutrition program, which is designed to provide meals to children from low-income families. The program was expanded by Congress at the start of the pandemic to allow more organizations to participate.
Per federal prosecutors, Feeding Our Future director Aimee Bock oversaw the illicit operation, as her organization saw a dramatic increase in federal aid from $3.4 million in 2019 to nearly $200 million in 2021.
In an official release, the DoJ noted that "defendants obtained, misappropriated, and laundered millions of dollars in program funds that were intended as reimbursements for the cost of serving meals to children."
Officials also provided additional details about the specifics of the massive scam. Feeding Our Future employees recruited individuals and entities to open Federal Child Nutrition Program sites around Minnesota.
This was easier than usual because the federal government waived certain requirements, such as the ineligibility of for-profit restaurants, during the pandemic.
The various sites connected to Feeding Our Future were operated by some of the 47 defendants, and others, who claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children a day within mere days or weeks of being formed. The defendants created dozens of shell companies to enroll in the program. They then created additional shell companies to launder hundreds of millions of dollars.
Furthermore, the defendants knowingly created and submitted false documentation, including fake meal count sheets and fake food purchase orders.
FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke out about the long-running scheme:
“Today’s indictments describe an egregious plot to steal public funds meant to care for children in need in what amounts to the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme yet. 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. These charges send the message that the FBI and our law enforcement partners remain vigilant and will vigorously pursue those who attempt to enrich themselves through fraudulent means.”
At a formal press conference, United States Attorney Andrew Luger thanked the FBI, IRS Criminal Investigation, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for their efforts to bring about these indictments.
The defendants' next court dates have not yet been announced.
What do you think about this massive fraud scam?
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