ST. LOUIS — Federal investigators late last year subpoenaed documents concerning a local church and a nonprofit that each billed over $20 million in recent years to two child nutrition programs.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri in December issued subpoenas to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services seeking records on Influence Church, led by pastors Darnell and Rochelle West, and nonprofit New Heights Community Resource Center, led by Connie Bobo.
Both Influence Church and New Heights were the subjects of lengthy Post-Dispatch investigations last year. The existence of the subpoenas was first reported Tuesday by the Missouri Independent.
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The subpoenas were released by DHSS, which oversees the U.S. Department of Agriculture child nutrition programs in Missouri, after a public records request from the Independent. The Post-Dispatch obtained copies from the state Tuesday.
Influence Church, which has locations in south St. Louis County, Bellefontaine Neighbors and University City, claimed almost $29 million in federal reimbursement through the USDA program over two years. Darnell West — who uses a helicopter to fly between his church properties — did not respond to a request for comment. Rochelle West, his wife and an accountant who managed financial records for the church’s participation in the program, also did not respond to a request for comment.
The Influence Church subpoena, requested by Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Wiseman, asks DHSS to turn over to the FBI all records relating to the church, including reimbursement claims, purchase receipts, meal counts, bank accounts where payments were directed and correspondence with the Wests. The subpoena was dated Dec. 22, a few days after the Post-Dispatch published its report.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gwen Carroll, who heads white collar crime in the office, sought the same types of records from New Heights in a subpoena to DHSS dated Dec. 16. The Post-Dispatch published a story Nov. 28 detailing how New Heights billed over $20 million since 2020, and the nonprofit bought a $975,000 house for Bobo in St. Charles.
A lawyer for Bobo, prominent local defense attorney Scott Rosenblum, did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
The USDA child nutrition programs — the Summer Food Service Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program — are meant to feed children at risk of going hungry during the summer or after school. Nonprofits that provide the service are paid as much as $4.50 a meal, payments meant to cover all program costs, including transportation and labor.
But during the pandemic, oversight rules were relaxed and providers were allowed to distribute over a dozen meals at a time in to-go containers rather than feeding children on site. Scenes of large drive-thru-style distribution events became common, and payments to some organizations ballooned to over $1 million per month.
The program became lucrative enough that some organizations, such as New Heights and Influence Church, began trucking meals to sites across the state in order to claim more and more meal reimbursements.
In a matter of months, New Heights and Influence Church became two of the largest participants in Missouri’s program, as measured by the amount of money they claimed in meal reimbursement. And, when Missouri tightened its rules back up as the pandemic wound down, they stopped participating.
DHSS officials and Gov. Mike Parson drew headlines last summer when Missouri became the first state to stop allowing grab-and-go food distribution under the programs. Advocates called the move cruel and said it limited access to food for poor kids. But state officials cited concerns about “program integrity” and hinted that they were worried some organizations had been gaming the system under the COVID-19 rules.
“DHSS does cooperate with federal law enforcement on investigations related to the CACFP and Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), but cannot confirm or deny any federal investigations since those are not department activities,” a health department spokeswoman said.
Records released by the state also indicate three other nonprofits that participate in the programs in the Kansas City area may be under investigation.
The investigations into the food programs here follow a major federal investigation of the USDA program in Minneapolis where dozens were charged in what prosecutors said at the time was the largest fraud yet tied to the emergency pandemic programs that pumped trillions into the economy.