Nearly 50 people were charged on Tuesday with carrying out a sweeping COVID-19 fraud scheme in which they allegedly stole close to $250 million from a federal program meant to feed hungry children in Minneapolis.
At a press conference, Attorney General Merrick Garland called it “the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme charged to date.”
Federal prosecutors said the 47 defendants pulled off the massive scam by taking advantage of loosened rules and oversight during the pandemic. They allegedly blew the cash meant for underserved kids on fancy cars and luxury real estate.
“This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” said Andrew Luger, US Attorney for the District of Minnesota.
Prosecutors allege that Minnesota-based charity Feeding Our Future took advantage of a COVID rule-changes that allowed for student meal-assistance programs to operate off school grounds, as well as for the involvement of for-profit restaurants.
The indictments accuse Aimee Bock, the charity’s founder and director, of recruiting a network of people and organizations to operate as many as 250 fraudulent meal assistance sites — and cash in on federal funding meant to feed children during the pandemic.
The money instead went toward luxury vehicles and the purchase of real estate in Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky and even as far afield as Kenya and Turkey, the feds allege.
“These sites … fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children a day within just days or weeks of being formed,” prosecutors said in a statement.
To that end, the defendants are accused of creating fraudulent invoices for food purchases, and even attendance sheets with fake names of the children supposedly served.
One such roster was created with names from a website called listofrandomnames.com, prosecutors said.
The 47 defendants — charged in three separate indictments — include Bock and her employee, Abdikerm Abdelahi Eidleh, as well as 45 others accused of helping to run fraudulent sites as part of the scheme.
An attorney for Bock did not respond to a request for comment.