The Justice Department on Tuesday announced indictments against 47 people accused of stealing $250 million from a federal program designed to provide meals to needy children during the pandemic.
According to the department, the scheme is the largest Covid-19-related scam uncovered by investigators to date. The defendants face a range of charges including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and paying and receiving illegal kickbacks.
The defendants, prosecutors said, built a network of shell companies associated with the Minnesota-based nonprofit organization Feeding our Future to take advantage of the state child feeding program designed to provide meals to children from low-income families. The program was expanded by Congress early in the pandemic to allow more organizations to participate.
“Feeding Our Future staff recruited individuals and organizations to open Federal Child Nutrition Program locations throughout the state of Minnesota,” the Justice Department said in a press release. “These websites, created and operated by the defendants and others, fraudulently claimed to serve meals to thousands of children every day within days or weeks of their creation.”
The Department of Justice alleges that despite Feeding Our Future’s knowledge of their own fraudulent claims, they nevertheless submitted them to the Minnesota Department of Education, which administered and oversaw the federal program for the state.
“This was an outrageous plan of astounding proportions,” said US Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minnesota. “These defendants took advantage of a program aimed at providing nutritious food to children in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, prioritizing their own greed, they stole more than a quarter billion dollars in federal funds to buy luxury cars, homes, jewelry and seaside resorts abroad.”
“The company received approximately $3.4 million in federal funding and disbursed to sites it sponsored in 2019 and received nearly $200 million in 2021,” part of the indictment reads. “In total, Feeding Our Future has fraudulently received and disbursed more than $240 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds during the Covid-19 pandemic,” it continued.
The defendants claimed to feed thousands of children a day, prosecutors said. To maintain the subterfuge, the defendants allegedly produced false bills for the food served to the children and lists using false names to show who was being fed.
Additionally, the Minnesota Department of Education was given “false assurances” that Feeding Our Future was serving the meals as claimed, after the department “attempted to exercise the necessary oversight of the number of locations and the amount of applications submitted,” according to the DOJ.
According to prosecutors, the defendants used the program’s proceeds to buy properties in Minnesota, Kenya and Turkey, luxury cars, jewelry, fund international travel and more.
At a Tuesday news conference, Luger said an unspecified number of people were arrested in the morning, but some defendants are not in the United States at this time.
This story has been updated with additional details.