The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced charges against 47 Minnesotans Tuesday for allegedly defrauding the federal government’s child nutrition programs of $250 million in a little over 20 months.
“These 47 defendants engaged in a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said during a press conference, describing the $250 million total as just the “floor” because the federal investigation continues.
At the center of the charges is Aimee Bock, the founder and executive director of Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit whose offices were raided in January. Tuesday’s press conference marked a dramatic escalation in the case as the federal government spent the eight months since the raids preparing six indictments against 47 individuals for charges ranging from conspiracy and wire fraud to money laundering and bribery.
“In March 2020, early in the pandemic, a small group of people in Minnesota had an idea and saw an opportunity. These individuals believed they could steal tens of millions of dollars from a federal child nutrition program by claiming to serve food to needy children when they were not. Their goal was to make as much money for themselves as they could while falsely claiming to feed children during the pandemic,” Luger said during Tuesday’s press conference.
“As their plan was met with initial success, they were joined by many others, who also wanted to make money by falsely claiming to feed needy children. Before long, the scheme that began with a simple idea in March of 2020 grew to become the largest pandemic fraud in the United States,” he continued.
Three of the defendants were charged via criminal informations, a term used when the defendants are “expected to waive their right to a grand jury and plead guilty,” Luger explained.
Feeding Our Future participated in the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Programs, both belonging to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition programs.
In Minnesota, the state Department of Education (MDE) functions as the conduit for overseeing and administering federal reimbursements from those programs.
The food itself is distributed by “meal sites,” each of which must be sponsored by an “authorized sponsoring organization,” in this case Feeding Our Future.
While the alleged fraud didn’t directly involve any pandemic relief programs, the Department of Justice is describing it as pandemic fraud because the defendants exploited the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s loosened requirements for meal sites.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA waived some of the standard requirements for participation in the Federal Child Nutrition Program. Among other things, the USDA allowed for-profit restaurants to participate in the program, as well as allowed for off-site food distribution to children outside of educational programs,” Luger’s office explained in a press release.
In total, Feeding Our Future opened more than 250 sites throughout the state of Minnesota and fraudulently obtained and disbursed more than $240 million in federal child nutrition program funds, according to Luger’s office.
“The defendants used the proceeds of their fraudulent scheme to purchase luxury vehicles, residential and commercial real estate in Minnesota as well as property in Ohio and Kentucky, real estate in Kenya and Turkey, and to fund international travel,” a press release said.
Luger said the defendants worked incredibly fast, “stealing money for themselves at a breakneck pace.”
“It quickly became the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme,” he said. “Perhaps the most staggering fact of all is the number of fake meals the defendants claimed to have served. More than 125 million fake meals are at issue in this case.”
“Multiple sites working with Feeding Our Future claimed 2,000, 3,000 or up to 6,000 meals per day, often seven days a week,” he continued.
Luger also described the fraud as a “pay-to-play scheme,” since the money flowed to the “fake meal sites” and then back to Feeding Our Future in the form of kickbacks.
And these are just the “first set of charges,” Luger said.
“I have been clear from day one: MDE could have and should have done more,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, chair of the Senate Education Committee.
His committee led three hearings on the case and released a summary of its findings last week.
“This is the largest case of COVID fraud in the nation because MDE didn’t do their jobs. The fraud was started and persisted because MDE failed to complete due diligence on these bad actors. They may have assisted in the investigation, but it’s too little, too late. Forty-nine other states simply did not have these problems and we are all wondering why Minnesota is different,” he said.
The Department of Education pushed back on some of these characterizations in a statement to Alpha News last week.
“We want to be clear that MDE staff raised concerns with Feeding Our Future early on and escalated their reporting to the USDA, the OIG and the FBI. Even when MDE stopped payments to Feeding Our Future, a court informed MDE the payments must continue,” said Director of Communications Kevin Burns.
“Because of MDE’s early action, the federal government opened an investigation, which we have fully supported. MDE moved quickly and repeatedly raised the issue to federal authorities until we were able to find someone who would take the troubling spending as seriously as we were,” he added.
Bock has previously denied any wrongdoing in various media interviews.
This is a developing story. Alpha News will continue to follow for updates.