Bryant Woman Pleads Guilty To Conspiracy In Scheme To Steal Feeding Program Funds
LITTLE ROCK—Christopher R. Thyer, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, announced today that Francine Leon, 42, of Bryant, pled guilty to an Information charging her with conspiring to commit wire fraud. The charge relates to a conspiracy to fraudulently obtain United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) program funds intended to feed children in low income areas during the school year.
Today’s plea hearing took place in Little Rock before United States District Judge James M. Moody, Jr. Judge Moody will sentence Leon at a later date.
The USDA funds the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program, which includes an at-risk after school component. In Arkansas, the feeding programs are administered by the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS). Sponsors who want to participate in the feeding programs must submit an application to DHS for approval. Once approved, they can provide meals as part of the feeding program and be reimbursed based on the number of eligible meals they serve.
According to facts read at the plea hearing, Leon operated as a sponsor for a feeding program through an organization called "Brighter Kids, Brighter Futures." At times during the period charged in the Information, Leon approved sites in Cotton Plant, Wheatley, Poplar Grove, Morrilton, Brinkley and West Helena. Leon admitted that she was recruited by former DHS employee Tonique Hatton—who is indicted on similar charges in case number 4:14-cr-000250 JM—and another former DHS employee to participate. They explained that they would do all of the paperwork and make sure Leon received the maximum amount possible for each Site. They did this through overstating the number of children that were fed. In exchange, out of the money she received, Leon paid cash initially back to Hatton and then later to the second DHS employee. Leon received a total of approximately $1,003,630. Leon withdrew approximately $534,710 in cash. Leon paid Hatton between approximately $100,000 - $110,000 and the other DHS employee between approximately $60,000 - $80,000.
Leon is the third person to plead guilty concerning USDA feeding program funds. The previous charges filed in this investigation and Leon’s information detail alleged fraud involving over $10 million in USDA feeding program funds. Kattie Jordan and Christopher Nichols previously pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud on August 3, 2015 and January 15, 2016, respectively.
The statutory penalty for conspiracy to commit wire fraud is not more than 20 years imprisonment, not more than a $250,000 fine, or both, and not more than three years supervised release.
The investigation is ongoing and is being conducted by the USDA–Office of Inspector General, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service–Criminal Investigations, and United States Marshals Service. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Jana Harris and Allison W. Bragg. If you are aware of any fraudulent activity regarding these feeding programs, please email that information to USAARE.FeedingProgramFraud@usdoj.gov.