News that a nonprofit director and more than four dozen others have been charged in a vast scheme to steal from the government — and needy children — is another embarrassment for Minnesota. The sheer number of alleged participants and the amount of money involved is astounding.
This week, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced indictments against Feeding Our Future Executive Director Aimee Bock and 47 other defendants. They are accused of taking more than $250 million in taxpayer funds that were supposed to help feed children during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal funds were sent to the Minnesota Education Department to distribute to local food programs.
Prosecutors in this case and related ongoing investigations must get to the bottom of how and why this massive abuse of public funds happened.
Prosecutors accused Bock of recruiting many of those who conspired to skim funds from the federal program. And prosecutors say Bock knowingly submitted more than 125 million false meal claims.
Luger described the scheme as the largest pandemic fraud in the country and one of the largest federal fraud cases ever brought in Minnesota.
Those indicted "engaged in a brazen scheme of staggering proportions," Luger said. "Their goal was to make as much money for themselves as they could while falsely claiming to feed children during the pandemic."
Among the charges are conspiracy, money laundering, bribery and wire fraud. The indictments allege that conspirators submitted fake invoices and enrollment forms with fictitious names. They are accused of falsely claiming to have purchased food and distributed it to millions of kids.
Feeding Our Future had agreements to sponsor more than 200 sites to help deliver food to children during the pandemic. The organization went from a $300,000 operation in 2018 to $197 million in 2021. Prosecutors allege that some of the money instead was spent on luxury cars, homes and trips.
The fraud scheme was allegedly carried out by several leaders in local politics, business, housing and education, some of whom are members of the East African community in the Twin Cities. Should they be found guilty, those individuals — not their entire immigrant group — should be blamed.
Keep in mind that thousands of lower-income children of East African descent were supposed to receive never-delivered meals. The funds were supposed to prevent hunger — not pad the pockets of those running the programs.
Another damaging outcome of this sordid case is that Minnesota, once a national model for government efficiency and transparency, is again receiving national attention for dysfunction. It's also troubling that two of those charged are former Minneapolis city officials — one who served as an aide to Mayor Jacob Frey and the other a former board chair of the Public Housing Authority.
Granted, many state and federal offices were under pressure to get social service emergency funding out the door quickly during the pandemic. But there still should have been proper criteria and monitoring to prevent abuse. This case is yet another painful example of how government programs can fail to provide basic oversight.
Fortunately, Minnesotans can be confident that Luger's office is on the case. His record suggests that all of those responsible for this mess will be held accountable.