(CNN) — The Justice Department announced charges against 47 people accused of stealing $250 million from a federal program designed to provide meals for needy children during the pandemic.
According to the department, the scheme is the largest COVID-19-related fraud uncovered by investigators to date. The defendants are facing a range of charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and paying and receiving illegal kickbacks.
The defendants, prosecutors said, set up a network of shell companies connected to the Minnesota-based nonprofit Feeding our Future, to exploit the federal child nutrition program, which is designed to provide meals to children from low-income families. The program was expanded by Congress at the start of the pandemic to allow more organizations to participate.
“This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” said US Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minnesota. “These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they prioritized their own greed, stealing more than a quarter of a billion dollars in federal funds to purchase luxury cars, houses, jewelry, and coastal resort property abroad.”
The defendants claimed to be feeding thousands of children per day, prosecutors said. To keep up the ruse, the defendants allegedly submitted false invoices for food served to the children and lists of fake names to show who was fed.
According to prosecutors, the defendants used the proceeds of the scheme to buy real estate in Minnesota, Kenya and Turkey, luxury cars, jewelry, to fund international travel, and more.