Five employees of a federal government watchdog agency, one of whom is a member of the Prince George’s County school board, were indicted Tuesday on charges of illegally obtaining reduced-price school lunches for their children, officials said.
Prosecutors allege that the employees, all with the Government Accountability Office, along with the spouse of a separate GAO worker, fraudulently reported their incomes to qualify for the discounted meals offered by the federal government. And officials said there may be nearly 300 other federal workers flagged for similar concerns of fraud.
The alleged theft by the six people cost the government $13,000 over four years, according to county and federal officials.
“This is a program for people who can’t afford it, but these are people who can,” said John Erzen, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Lynette Mundey, who is a Prince George’s Board of Education member, and five others were charged with theft, fraud and filing false applications, prosecutors said. Others charged were Barbara Rowley, Jamilah Reid, Tracy Williams, Charlene Savoy and James Pinkney, the spouse of a GAO employee.
Mundey, who is scheduled to leave the board this month, did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.
The defendants earned salaries that were well above the level required to qualify for the federal school lunch program, Erzen said. Some families under-reported their income or reported having no income, even though their salaries ranged from $55,000 to $78,000, county and federal officials said.
A reduced-price lunch costs 40 cents, and a full-price lunch costs $2.75 for elementary school students and $3 for middle and high school students, according to the Prince George’s County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services.
Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level ($30,615 for a family of four) are eligible for free meals under the National School Lunch Program, and those with incomes up to 185 percent of the poverty level ($43,568 for a family of four) are eligible for reduced-price meals that cost no more than 40 cents, according to information USDA for 2013-2014.
The program operates in public and private schools, providing nutritionally balanced meals at little or no cost to children from needy families. In fiscal 2012, federal officials estimated that more than 31.6 million children had lunch through the program daily, according to the program’s Web site.
The investigation into Mundey and others emerged from a May 2014 audit produced by the GAO, which showed that about 300 federal employees may have been abusing the federal reduced-price school lunch system.
When the GAO discovered that some if its own employees were flagged in the audit, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General investigated the matter and forwarded its findings to prosecutors in Prince George’s, where getting a conviction would be much easier than in the federal court system, officials said.
“We were both disappointed and surprised during the course of our investigation into school lunch fraud to discover some of our own employees might be involved,” GAO spokesman Chuck Young said in a statement. “We will now be monitoring the judicial process and then determine what personnel actions might be appropriate.”
The GAO has referred the other federal employees flagged from the audit to the U.S. Agriculture Department, to various school boards and to human services departments in three states and the District, Young said.
The six people indicted are accused of benefiting from reduced-price lunches, or stealing federal subsidies for which they allegedly were not entitled. Other children who receive free lunches through the program would not be affected by such a theft.
“These indictments send a clear message that stealing federal funds intended for the poor, or for anyone else, will simply not be tolerated,” according to a statement from Adam Trzeciak, the inspector general for the GAO.
Mundey has served on the Prince George’s County Board of Education since 2013, but she announced her decision to resign in the spring. She told a local newspaper that she was leaving to pursue a doctorate degree.
Mundey was appointed to the board to fill a seat vacated by Carletta Fellows, who resigned after the board questioned charges she made on a board-issued credit card. Mundey’s appointment came after County Executive Rushern L. Baker III was given greater authority over the school system and was among four others who were appointed to the expanded board by Baker.
Baker’s office said that it was aware of the allegations but that the county executive’s administration would not comment until the investigation was complete. The Prince George’s Board of Education said that it would “fully cooperate with the legal process” after being made aware of Mundey’s indictment.
When WJLA-TV confronted Mundey about the investigation into the alleged fraud in July, she denied any ethical violations.
Erzen said that although $13,000 among six people over four years may not be much money, this is an important case for prosecutors to pursue.
“It’s concerning when you have a public official . . . who is actually committing fraud against the very system she is helping to advance,” Erzen said. “It seems like a lot of trouble to go through for such a small amount of money.”
Ovetta Wiggins, Donna St. George and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.