MINNEAPOLIS — The Justice Department said on Tuesday that it had charged 48 people with running a brazen fraud against anti-hunger programs in the coronavirus pandemic, stealing $240 million by billing the government for meals they did not serve to children who did not exist.
The case, in Minnesota, is the largest fraud uncovered in any pandemic-relief program, prosecutors said, standing out even in a period when heavy federal spending and lax oversight allowed a spree of scams with few recent parallels.
The Minnesota operation, prosecutors said, involved faked receipts for 125 million meals. At times, it was especially bold: One accused conspirator told the government he had fed 5,000 children a day in a second-story apartment.
Other defendants in the case seemed to put minimal effort into disguising what they were doing, using the website listofrandomnames.com to create a fake list of children they could charge for feeding. Others used a number-generating program to produce ages for the children they were supposedly feeding, which led the ages to fluctuate wildly each time the group updated its list of those nonexistent children, court papers said.
But their scheme — details of which were reported in The New York Times in March — still pulled in millions of dollars per week, prosecutors said in court papers, because government officials had relaxed oversight of the feeding program during the pandemic and because the other defendants had help from a trusted insider.
That insider was Aimee Bock, the founder of a nonprofit group, Feeding Our Future, that the State of Minnesota relied on as a watchdog to stop fraud at feeding sites. But Ms. Bock did the opposite, the indictments said: When pandemic-relief programs flooded the programs with money, she exploited her position to bring in nearly 200 new feeding operations she knew were submitting fake or inflated invoices.
Even when the government of Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, raised questions, Ms. Bock rebuffed them by filing a lawsuit and accusing state officials of discriminating against her group’s largely East African clientele.