- The DOJ charged 47 people with participating in a scheme to defraud the government.
- Prosecutors alleged the fraudsters used a fake-name-generating site to steal $250M meant for kids.
- Proceeds were used to buy property in Kenya and Turkey, the US claims.
Using a website that generated fake names and exploiting relaxed oversight at the start of the pandemic, fraudsters in Minnesota stole roughly $250 million from a federal program meant to feed hungry children and used the proceeds to buy property in Kenya and Turkey, the US Department of Justice alleged Tuesday.
“This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” US Attorney Andrew M. Luger said in a statement announcing the indictments of 47 people on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and bribery. If proven, the scheme would amount to the largest fraud uncovered since the advent of COVID-19.
According to prosecutors, the accused exploited the federal Child Nutrition Program, which provides free or low-cost meals to impoverished children. Typically distributed at schools, during the pandemic the federal government permitted meals to be served at off-site locations, including restaurants.
With the help of employees at a Minnesota nonprofit, Feeding Our Future, the Justice Department claimed, the accused conspirators submitted false invoices and rosters — listing fake names, generated by the website “www.listofrandomnames.com,” for children who did not exist — and pocketed money for meals that were never served. Feeding Our Future, in turn, collected $18 million in administrative fees for disbursing that money, according to the indictment.
Launched by founder Aimee Bock in 2016, through her LinkedIn, Feeding Our Future rapidly expanded during the pandemic. In 2019, it dispersed $3.4 million in federal aid, according to prosecutors, rising to nearly $200 million in 2021.
In addition to benefitting from administrative fees, prosecutors have accused Bock and employees at her organization of operating a “pay-to-play scheme,” per an indictment obtained by The New York Times“in which individuals seeking to operate fraudulent sites under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future had to kick back a portion of their fraudulent proceeds.”
Those involved in the scheme, prosecutors claim, spent proceeds on travel, luxury vehicles, and property in Minnesota, Ohio, and Kentucky — as well as real estate in Turkey and Kenya.
A search warrant, executed in January, accused Bock of accepting a $310,000 payment from one client, Sahan Journal reported. Bock, in turn, accused a former friend and business partner, without evidence, of hacking into her bank account and reporting the payment to law enforcement.
Federal authorities, meanwhile, allege that Bock and her organization falsely claimed to be monitoring the fake distribution sites central to the 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,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement on Tuesday.
Bock has proclaimed his innocence, telling The Times earlier this year following federal raids that it was “possible” fraud had taken place but that strong checks were in place. “And if they got one over on us,” she said at the time, “I will hold them accountable.
A lawyer for Bock did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A call to the number listed on the website for Feeding Our Future — which Bock said would “dissolve” following the federal raids earlier this year — was picked up by a person who identified themselves as “James.” Asked for comment on the federal indictment, they instead offered an Insider reporter a “$100 rebate” and asked for their home address before hanging up the phone.
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