U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, during a press conference, said that a gang of 47 Somalis have committed the largest COVID fraud in the United States. These are just the first set of charges.
For allegedly defrauding the federal government’s child nutrition programmes of $250 million in just over 20 months, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged 47 Minnesotans on Tuesday.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger stated during a press conference that the $250 million total was merely the “floor” and that the 47 defendants “engaged in a brazen scheme of staggering proportions.”
Watch the entire press conference in the video below:
Aimee Bock, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Feeding Our Future, whose offices were searched in January, is at the centre of the accusations. The federal government has spent the eight months since the raids compiling six indictments against 47 people on crimes ranging from conspiracy and wire fraud to money laundering and bribery. Tuesday’s news briefing marked a dramatic escalation in the case.
Subscribe to GreatGameIndia
“In March 2020, early in the pandemic, a small group of people in Minnesota had an idea and saw an opportunity. These individuals believed they could steal tens of millions of dollars from a federal child nutrition program by claiming to serve food to needy children when they were not. Their goal was to make as much money for themselves as they could while falsely claiming to feed children during the pandemic,” Luger said during Tuesday’s press conference.
“As their plan was met with initial success, they were joined by many others, who also wanted to make money by falsely claiming to feed needy children. Before long, the scheme that began with a simple idea in March of 2020 grew to become the largest pandemic fraud in the United States,” he continued.
According to Luger, three of the defendants were prosecuted using criminal informations, which is a legal phrase used when the accused is “expected to waive their right to a grand jury and plead guilty.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition programmes include the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Summer Food Service Program, both of which Feeding Our Future participated in.
The state department of education (MDE) of Minnesota serves as the central hub for managing and distributing federal reimbursements from these programmes.
The actual food is provided through “meal sites,” which are in this case sponsored by Feeding Our Future, an “authorised sponsoring organisation.”
The Department of Justice is classifying the alleged fraud as pandemic fraud even though it wasn’t directly related to any pandemic relief programmes because the defendants took advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s relatively lax standards for meal sites.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA waived some of the standard requirements for participation in the Federal Child Nutrition Program. Among other things, the USDA allowed for-profit restaurants to participate in the program, as well as allowed for off-site food distribution to children outside of educational programs,” Luger’s office explained in a press release.
According to Luger’s office, Feeding Our Future opened more than 250 locations around the state of Minnesota and unlawfully received and spent more than $240 million in funds from the federal child feeding programme.
“The defendants used the proceeds of their fraudulent scheme to purchase luxury vehicles, residential and commercial real estate in Minnesota as well as property in Ohio and Kentucky, real estate in Kenya and Turkey, and to fund international travel,” a press release said.
Luger said the defendants worked incredibly fast, “stealing money for themselves at a breakneck pace.”
“It quickly became the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme,” he said. “Perhaps the most staggering fact of all is the number of fake meals the defendants claimed to have served. More than 125 million fake meals are at issue in this case.”
“Multiple sites working with Feeding Our Future claimed 2,000, 3,000 or up to 6,000 meals per day, often seven days a week,” he continued.
Due to the money flowing to the “fake meal sites” and then returning to Feeding Our Future in the form of kickbacks, Luger also referred to the fraud as a “pay-to-play scheme.”
And, according to Luger, these are just the “first set of charges.”
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, chair of the Senate Education Committee, declared: “I have been clear from day one: MDE could have and should have done more.”
His committee conducted three hearings on the matter and last week made a summary of its findings public.
“This is the largest case of COVID fraud in the nation because MDE didn’t do their jobs. The fraud was started and persisted because MDE failed to complete due diligence on these bad actors. They may have assisted in the investigation, but it’s too little, too late. Forty-nine other states simply did not have these problems and we are all wondering why Minnesota is different,” he said.
“We want to be clear that MDE staff raised concerns with Feeding Our Future early on and escalated their reporting to the USDA, the OIG and the FBI. Even when MDE stopped payments to Feeding Our Future, a court informed MDE the payments must continue,” said Director of Communications Kevin Burns.
“Because of MDE’s early action, the federal government opened an investigation, which we have fully supported. MDE moved quickly and repeatedly raised the issue to federal authorities until we were able to find someone who would take the troubling spending as seriously as we were,” he added.
In a number of media appearances, Bock has previously vehemently denied any wrongdoing.