A group of restaurateurs and caterers in Minnesota have been charged with masterminding a scheme that snatched $250 million from a federal program for feeding children during the pandemic.
Federal law-enforcement officials say the scam is the largest pandemic-relief fraud they’ve seen to date.
The individuals were part of a 47-person ring that took advantage of an effort early in the pandemic to feed disadvantaged children who might have otherwise received free or reduced-price meals through the federal school lunch program.
With schools and dining rooms closed because of COVID-19, restaurants were invited to use their otherwise idled kitchens to provide the food, with reimbursement coming from the school lunch program, officially known as the Federal Child Nutrition Program (FCNP).
The catch was that any restaurant or commercial kitchen looking to participate needed a “sponsor,” a party that had already been authorized by the Minnesota Department of Education to participate in the FCNP. Typically the sponsor provided an administrative role, channeling reimbursements from the Department of Education to a commercial kitchen. In exchange, the sponsor typically took a commission of 10% or 15%.
One such sponsor was Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit charity run by a woman named Aimee Bock. She was also the proprietor of a Minnesota restaurant called Safari.
Bock made Feeding Our Future the sponsor of Safari. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, she also had the organization sponsor a host of other foodservice operations throughout Minnesota, including Brava Restaurant &Café, S&S Catering in the Twin Cities, Empire Cuisine and Market, near Savage; and Haji’s Kitchen, near St. Anthony.
When Feeding Our Future ran out of actual restaurants to sponsor, it started inventing sites, according to the Justice Department. It asserted in announcing the charges that Bock and her associates at one point used a website called www.listofrandomnames.com to come up with identities.
In all, Feeding Our Future sponsored 250 sites throughout Minnesota, and the nonprofit’s revenues jumped from $3.4 million in 2019 to $200 million in 2021, Justice said in its announcement.
In addition to billing for sites that didn’t really exist, Feeding Our Future made false claims about the output of actual kitchens, according to Justice. It alleges that Bock channeled reimbursement funds to other participants but also squeezed them for kickbacks.
“This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” Andrew Luger, U.S. attorney for the Justice Department’s District of Minnesota, said during a press conference announcing the charges.
“These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he continued. “Instead, they prioritized their own greed, stealing more than a quarter of a billion dollars in federal funds to purchase luxury cars, houses, jewelry, and coastal resort property abroad.”
Those purchases included real estate investments in Kenya and Turkey.
The 47 defendants are charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and bribery.
No effort was made to reach out to the 47 because of the large number of those who were charged.
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