(MINNEAPOLIS) — Federal authorities charged 47 people in Minnesota on Tuesday with conspiracy and other counts in what they called the largest COVID-19 fraud scheme yet, stealing $250 million from a federal program that provides meals to low-income children.
According to prosecutors, the defendants formed companies that claimed to provide food to tens of thousands of children across Minnesota, then sought reimbursement for those meals through the United States Department of Agriculture’s food nutrition programs. Prosecutors claim that few meals were served, and the defendants spent the money on luxury cars, real estate, and jewelry.
“This is the floor,” said Andy Luger, the United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota, at a news conference. “Our investigation is ongoing.”
Many of the companies claiming to serve food were sponsored by Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit that submitted the companies’ claims for reimbursement.
Aimee Bock, the founder and executive director of Feeding Our Future, was among those charged, and authorities claim she and others in her organization submitted fraudulent reimbursement claims and received kickbacks.
Kenneth Udoibok, Bock’s attorney, stated that the indictment “doesn’t indicate guilt or innocence.” He stated that he would not comment further until he saw the indictment.
Bock denied stealing money and said she never saw evidence of fraud in interviews after law enforcement searched multiple locations in January, including her home and offices.
The US Department of Justice made pandemic-related fraud a priority earlier this year. The department has already taken enforcement actions related to more than $8 billion in suspected pandemic fraud, including charging people in over 1,000 criminal cases with losses exceeding $1.1 billion.
Federal officials repeatedly called the alleged fraud “brazen” and decried the fact that it involved a program designed to feed children in need during the pandemic. The Minneapolis FBI office’s special agent in charge, Michael Paul, described it as “an astonishing display of deceit.”
Feeding Our Future received $307,000 in USDA reimbursements in 2018, $3.45 million in 2019, and $42.7 million in 2020, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed earlier this year. In 2021, the amount of reimbursements increased to $197.9 million.