FBI agents are investigating the St. Louis-area church, a nonprofit that has claimed millions in federal food aid
ST. LOUIS — Federal investigators subpoenaed documents late last year involving a local church and a nonprofit that each billed more than $20 million for two child feeding programs in recent years.
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri issued subpoenas in December for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to collect records relating to the Influence Church, led by Pastors Darnell and Rochelle West, and the nonprofit New Heights Community Resource Center, led by Get Connie Bobo.
Both Influence Church and New Heights have been the subject of lengthy post-dispatch investigations over the past year. The existence of the subpoenas was first reported Tuesday by the Missouri Independent.
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The subpoenas were released by the DHSS, which oversees the US Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition programs in Missouri, following a public filing request by the Independent. The Post-Dispatch received copies from the state on Tuesday.
Influence Church, which has campuses in southern St. Louis County, Bellefontaine Neighbors and University City, requested nearly $29 million in federal reimbursement over two years under the USDA program. 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, requires DHSS to turn over to the FBI all records related to the church, including reimbursement claims, purchase receipts, meal counts, bank accounts to which payments were directed, and correspondence with the Wests . The subpoena was dated December 22, a few days after Post-Dispatch released its report.
Assistant US Attorney Gwen Carroll, the firm’s white collar crimes attorney, requested the same types of records from New Heights in a Dec. 16 subpoena from DHSS. The Post-Dispatch published a story on Nov. 28 detailing how New Heights has netted $20 million since 2020, and the nonprofit bought a $975,000 home for Bobo in St. Charles.
An attorney for Bobo, prominent local defense attorney Scott Rosenblum, did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
The USDA’s child nutrition programs — the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program — are designed to feed children who are at risk of starvation in the summer or after school. Nonprofit organizations that provide this service will receive up to $4.50 per meal, payments intended to cover all program costs, including transportation and labor.
But during the pandemic, custodial rules have been relaxed and vendors have been allowed to distribute over a dozen meals at a time in take-out containers instead of feeding children on site. Scenes involving large drive-thru distribution events became common, and payments to some organizations rose to over $1 million a month.
The program became so lucrative that some organizations, like New Heights and Influence Church, began shipping meals to locations across the state to demand more and more meal reimbursements.
Within months, New Heights and Influence Church became two of the largest participants in Missouri’s program in terms of the amount of money they asked for meal reimbursements. And when Missouri tightened its rules again with the end of the pandemic, they stopped participating.
DHSS officials and Gov. Mike Parson made headlines last summer when Missouri became the first state to end takeout food distribution under the programs. Supporters called the move cruel and said it would limit poor children’s access to food. However, state officials raised concerns about “program integrity” and indicated they were concerned some organizations had been playing the system under COVID-19 rules.
“DHSS is cooperating with federal law enforcement agencies in investigations related to the CACFP and Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), but cannot confirm or deny any federal investigations because these are not Department activities,” a Health Department spokeswoman said.
Records released by the state also indicate investigations may be underway into three other nonprofits participating in the programs in the Kansas City area.
The investigation into the food programs here follows a major federal probe into the USDA program in Minneapolis that has indicted dozens in what prosecutors then called the largest fraud yet linked to the emergency pandemic programs that pumped trillions into the economy have.