By Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) - Federal prosecutors on Tuesday unveiled criminal charges against 47 people they accuse of stealing about $250 million from a federal aid program meant to help feed children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Justice said that the scheme, which centered on the Minnesota non-profit organization Feeding Our Future, is the largest fraud linked to pandemic relief programs yet uncovered. Feeding Our Future founder Aimee Bock, 41, is among those charged.
"This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions," U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger for the District of Minnesota said in a statement. "These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic."
Feeding Our Future could not immediately be reached for comment. Kenneth Udoibok, a lawyer for Bock, said his client "did nothing worthy of indictment."
The alleged scheme was tied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Federal Child Nutrition Program aimed at feeding needy children. The program, which was expanded during the pandemic, allows private restaurants to run federally funded food distribution sites, as long as they are sponsored by a non-profit organization.
Prosecutors said restaurant owners and others paid bribes to Feeding Our Future employees to get the organization to sponsor sham distribution sites. The participants then spent federal funds intended for the sites on personal purchases, including luxury cars, real estate and jewelry, according to prosecutors.
Defendants created dozens of shell companies to run the fake distribution sites and to launder the proceeds of the scheme, prosecutors said. They face charges, including wire fraud, money laundering and bribery.
The Justice Department has been pursuing fraud related to pandemic relief programs aggressively. In March, the agency said it had brought over 1,000 criminal cases involving losses of $1.1 billion, and charged more than 1,800 individuals and businesses in civil litigation alleging fraud in more than $6 billion worth of loans.
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Alexia Garamfalvi)