- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Three Arkansas women conspired to defraud a program that feeds low-income children around the state by inflating the number of meals that were served, a federal grand jury said in an indictment unsealed Thursday.

Jacqueline Mills, Gladys King and Tonique Hatton were charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to fraudulently obtain United States Department of Agriculture program funds. Additionally Mills, who ran at-risk afterschool and summer food service programs in east Arkansas, was charged with multiple counts of wire fraud, paying bribes and money laundering. The three women pleaded not guilty in court appearances Thursday afternoon.

“As alleged in the indictment, these three individuals and others were literally stealing money that was supposed to be used to feed the poor and hungry children,” U.S. District Attorney Chris Thyer said at a news conference announcing the indictment. “While I am pleased we were able to uncover and prosecute this behavior, I am at the same time sickened that it can happen at all.”

Mills received more than $2.5 million from the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which administers the program, for feeding sites in Helena-West Helena and Marianna. The indictment said that at least $950,000 of that ended up in Mills’ personal bank accounts.

The indictment also accuses Hatton and King, who both worked at DHS, of accepting bribes from Mills and not scrutinizing the inflated number of meals she submitted to the agency. DHS said King worked at the agency from May 2009 to December 2013, when she left voluntarily. DHS said it was in the process of terminating Hatton, who was hired in June 2001.

All three are scheduled to go to trial Jan. 20. Mills did not respond to reporters’ questions after a brief hearing, but her attorney said she maintained her innocence.

“There will be a lot of documentation in this case and once we have gone through it, it’s our belief we’ll be able to show Miss Mills is not guilty of what she’s charged with,” Ron Davis told reporters outside the federal courthouse.

Thyer said other providers are being investigated and expected more to be charged.

DHS Director John Selig said his agency had contacted federal authorities more than a year ago about concerns Mills had fraudulently billed the program. DHS officials said they were concerned after they said Mills had submitted doctored or altered food invoices for reimbursement.

The charges come as the state has been ramping up efforts to address childhood hunger. The number of meals served by the summer program has more than doubled from 1.6 million in 2011 to more than 3.8 million this year. Selig said the department has taken steps to strengthen the program’s oversight, including adding five fraud investigators and three senior auditors.

“When a program grows quickly, you unfortunately do have some bad actors who try to take advantage of something like that,” Selig said.


Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo .

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