Federal prosecutors announced charges Tuesday against 47 people accused of carrying out the biggest Covid fraud scheme to date, a theft of $250 million through what officials described as a brazen and staggering plot that exploited a federal program designed to feed needy children in Minnesota.
Prosecutors say a web of charities, restaurants and individuals pulled off the fraud by claiming they were providing meals for tens of thousands of underserved children, when in fact the money was going to commercial real estate, luxury cars, fancy homes and even coastal property in Kenya. Authorities say the defendants took advantage of loosened eligibility rules — and a lack of oversight — due to the pandemic.
"This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions," U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger said in a statement.
"The defendants worked extremely fast, stealing money at a breakneck pace," he added at a news conference announcing the charges. "More than 125 million fake meals are at issue in this case."
Many of the defendants are charged not only with fraud but with bribery because the government alleges the charities took kickbacks from the food sites in exchange for steering them federal grants. And many are charged with money laundering for allegedly moving stolen funds through shell corporations and other vehicles to blur the trail.
Prosecutors say the fraud was overseen by Aimee Bock, who ran a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future. She has denied wrongdoing and argued that if fraud occurred, it was without her knowledge.
Nonprofits such as Feeding Our Future were supposed to sponsor and oversee the restaurants, community centers and other places where the meals were to be provided.
The indictments say Feeding Our Future opened more than 250 meal distribution sites throughout Minnesota and fraudulently obtained and disbursed more than $240 million in funds from the Federal Child Nutrition Program, run by the Agriculture Department.
Many of the defendants come from Minneapolis’s large East African community, which was also where most of the nonexistent meals were supposed to have been provided.
FBI affidavits say one well-known restaurant collected $1.1 million in a single month, claiming to have fed 185,000 children. The FBI pointed out in court records that a typical McDonald's restaurant takes in $2.9 million — in an entire year.
One group of defendants filled out government documents using names of phantom children generated from the website "listofrandomnames.com," prosecutors say.
In the summer of 2020, the FBI said in court records, state officials became suspicious of the large number of meals being claimed at sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future and sought to deny payments at many of them. But Feeding Our Future sued in state court, and a judge ruled that the state had not made its case and ordered the payments to continue.
The sites continued to receive millions of dollars that the government now alleges was stolen, according to court records.
The judge, John Guthmann, was out of the country and not reachable for comment, his court reporter told NBC News.
State officials ultimately contacted the FBI, which began investigating, and conducted a series of raids in January that closed down the funding streams.
So far, the Justice Department has seized property, vehicles and bank accounts worth $50 million, officials said.
CORRECTION (Sept. 20, 2022, 12:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the dollar amount of the alleged fraud. Prosecutors say it was $250 million, not $250 billion.