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Federal subpoenas target records of Missouri nonprofits involved in child nutrition program

The Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, home of the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Missouri.
Rebecca Rivas
Missouri Independent
The Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, home of the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Missouri.

A federal grand jury issued three subpoenas to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in December demanding records about a pair of St. Louis-area nonprofits and their involvement in a federal child nutrition program.

The state turned over the subpoenas to The Independent as part of a request under the Sunshine Law. Issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, they sought a wide range of documents involving New Heights Community Resource Center and Church in Action, doing business as Influence Church.

Both nonprofits were involved in a federal program that reimburses organizations — charities, school districts and churches, among others — for the cost of serving free meals and snacks to children and teens in low-income communities.

And both were among the largest recipients of federal money during the early pandemic years, when participation in the program swelled and rules were loosened. New Heights Community Resource Center received more than $20 million in federal reimbursements, while Influence Church was paid nearly $30 million.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last year that New Heights Community Resource Center was blacklisted from the program by the state along with five other nonprofits. Lisa Cox, a spokeswoman for DHSS, confirmed this month that New Heights was terminated from the program.

Influence Church was not among the nonprofits that were barred from the program, Cox said.

“DHSS does cooperate with federal law enforcement on investigations related to the Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program,” Cox said, “ but cannot confirm or deny any federal investigations since those are not department activities.”

The subpoenas were requested by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Missouri. A spokesman for the office declined a request for comment.

An attorney representing Connie Bobo, founder of New Heights Community Resource Center, also declined to comment about the subpoenas. The Rev. Darnell West, senior pastor at Influence Church who was named in one of the subpoenas, did not respond to requests for comment.

The records being sought by federal authorities include any correspondence with the nonprofits or their leadership; the organizations’ initial applications for the program; reimbursement claim submissions; bank accounts into which reimbursements were directed; and training materials provided to the nonprofits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture added New Heights to its National Disqualified List last year, the Post-Dispatch reported. Inclusion in that list bars entities from participating in federal food programs.

New Heights was also referred to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office and the USDA Office of Inspector General, according to the Post-Dispatch. Before being barred from the program, New Heights drew scrutiny over its purchase in 2021 of a $975,000 house in St. Charles and a $2 million commercial building in Bridgeton.

Influence Church was founded under the name Church In Action in 2005. It once had five locations around the St. Louis area, though two of its campuses have closed.

The church told the Post-Dispatch in December that it was no longer participating in the federal programs after Missouri ended a policy that allowed parents and kids in low-income areas to pick up free meals and take them home.

Missouri was the only state not to opt in to a federal waiver that permitted program operators to offer grab-and-go meals for participants. The decision was pilloried by Democrats, who noted it resulted in a drop in the number of meals distributed to children from families with low incomes.

DHSS argued the decision was made because the state discovered financial mismanagement related to the waivers.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Jason Hancock is a reporter covering politics and policy for The Missouri Independent.