Sep 21, 2022 - News

Federal prosecutors allege "brazen" fraud involving federal food program for needy kids in Minnesota

feeding our future
Photo: Shari L. Gross/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Dozens of people are facing federal charges in Minnesota for their alleged roles in what prosecutors described as a "brazen" and "staggering" scheme to defraud the federal government of $250 million in pandemic funding meant to feed needy children.

Driving the news: U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced federal charges Tuesday against 48 defendants, including the executive director of the nonprofit Feeding Our Future and owners of Minneapolis' Safari Restaurant.

  • Charges, laid out in six separate indictments, include conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery.

The big picture: Prosecutors say this is the nation's biggest pandemic fraud case to date and one of the largest federal food fraud cases ever.

What happened: Prosecutors say the meal sites connected to Feeding Our Future signed onto the program during the pandemic and faked claims seeking reimbursements for millions of meals. They say 125 million meals may have been faked.

  • Defendants allegedly laundered the money through shell companies and used some for luxury cars, jewelry, electronics and property, including coastal homes in Kenya and Turkey, per the U.S. attorney's office.
  • "Their goal was to make as much money as they could while falsely claiming to feed children during the pandemic," Luger said at a news conference.

Zoom in: While some sites did serve some meals, prosecutors say defendants submitted false or inflated invoices, meal count sheets and even names to secure the reimbursements.

  • One site in Willmar claimed it fed 2,000 kids a week — just under half the entire school district population, Luger said. Just 33 names on the roster submitted matched children enrolled in the district.
  • “These children were simply invented,” Luger said at a news conference.

Yes, and: Prosecutors say Feeding Our Future, the nonprofit that sponsored sites participating in the child nutrition program, recruited other defendants to open more than 250 sites across Minnesota during the pandemic.

  • The group allegedly received $18 million in federal administrative fees under the scheme and "solicited and received bribes and kickbacks from individuals and companies" participating in the program.
  • Safari Restaurant, meanwhile, allegedly received more than $16 million in federal funds by claiming to serve 3.9 million meals, the Star Tribune notes.

The other side: An attorney for Feeding Our Future executive director Aimee Bock told MPR News he is "surprised that Ms. Bock has been indicted because she did nothing worthy of a criminal indictment."

  • "An indictment does not signify guilty or innocence," he added. "It’s the beginning of the criminal process."
  • Bock pleaded not guilty Tuesday, per the Star Tribune.

How we got here: The Minnesota Department of Education first raised concerns about Feeding Our Future's sites in the summer of 2020, per a Sahan Journal timeline.

  • The department contacted the FBI in April 2021. The investigation began the following month.
  • In January, the FBI raided more than a dozen sites connected with the alleged fraud, including Feeding Our Future’s office and Bock’s home.
  • The nonprofit announced it had ceased operations in February.

The intrigue: Legislative Republicans have questioned the Minnesota Department of Education's role in the scandal, saying administrators should have done more to catch and stop the alleged fraud sooner.

  • Luger told reporters it's "not for me to say" if MDE did anything wrong but said that he was pleased with "thorough cooperation" from the department.

What to watch: Luger said the actions were just "the first set of charges" in an ongoing investigation.

avatar

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Twin Cities.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Twin Cities stories

No stories could be found

Twin Citiespostcard

Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Twin Cities.

🌱

Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more