In a statement this week, the Justice Department released details of what it has described as “the largest COVID-19 fraud scheme in the nation.”
Worse yet, the roughly $250 million in allegedly misappropriated funds had been intended to help feed disadvantaged children during the public health crisis.
As U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger explained, the nearly four dozen defendants “exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic” to “purchase luxury cars, houses, jewelry, and coastal resort property abroad.”
He celebrated the hard work of federal investigators and prosecutors “who unraveled the lies, deception, and mountains of false documentation to bring this complex case to light.”
While many of the defendants have either been arrested or surrendered to authorities, some of them are believed to have fled the country.
"The subjects in this case weren't interested in feeding our future," says FBI official Michael Paul. "They were interested in feeding their own gluttony in the way of international vacations, real estate, luxury vehicles, homes…." https://t.co/ydVQPtSAVS
— Carrie Johnson (@johnson_carrie) September 20, 2022
The Justice Department issued a lengthier statement outlining the “massive scheme to defraud the Federal Child Nutrition Program” by exploiting “changes in the program intended to ensure underserved children received adequate nutrition during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As the agency explained, the United States Department of Agriculture expanded the program after the outbreak of COVID-19, allowing for-profit businesses and a larger number of nonprofit organizations to participate and opening the door for potential fraud.
“Aimee Bock was the founder and executive director of Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit organization that was a sponsor participating in the Federal Child Nutrition Program,” the statement continued. “The indictments charge Bock with overseeing a massive fraud scheme carried out by sites under Feeding Our Future’s sponsorship.”
According to the Department of Justice, Bock’s organization “went from receiving and disbursing approximately $3.4 million in federal funds in 2019 to nearly $200 million in 2021.”
Feeding Our Future is accused of conspiring with other defendants across Minnesota to create “dozens of shell companies to enroll in the program as Federal Child Nutrition Program sites,” which essentially laundered the incoming federal funds.
In total, prosecutors say the scheme included “more than 250 sites across the state, disbursing more than $250 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds … used to purchase cars, international travel, and both commercial and residential real estate in the U.S. and abroad.”
While this is the largest alleged scheme to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, programs designed to provide assistance to small businesses and individuals have been rife with fraud.
As Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who oversees the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, explained earlier this year: “What didn’t happen was even minimal checks to make sure that the money was getting to the right people at the right time.”