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Former head of children's food program gets 33 months in federal prison in fraud case

Former head of children's food program gets 33 months in federal prison in fraud case

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PEORIA — Nora L. Steele, of Silvis, the former operations director of the Quad Cities Area Children’s Food Program, was sentenced Tuesday in federal court to 33 months in federal prison.

Through the QCACFP, at-risk youth were served meals at numerous Quad-Cities area locations, according to federal authorities. The meals often were combined with learning or care programs operated by the YMCA or Spring Forward Learning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimbursed the QCACFP per meal.

On Sept. 19, 2018, Steele pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. Department of Agriculture and filing a false tax return, according to authorities. She chose to waive indictment on the charges when she did so. At the September hearing, she admitted that from August 2015 through June 2017 she recorded more meal count forms at Church of Peace and QCACFP than actually were served when she filed for federal reimbursement.

Chief U.S. District Judge James E. Shadid sentenced her during a Tuesday afternoon hearing in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois’ Peoria courthouse. She must also serve one year of mandatory supervised release and pay about $525,000 in restitution to the federal government. She must turn herself into the U.S. Marshal's Service on March 12, Shadid said.

"You're sitting in that seat because of your own choice, or action or conduct," he said.

That conduct, according to authorities, included increasing count of served meals beyond what was actually provided or submitting forms for dates on which no meals were served from the listed site, according to authorities. The overflow from the falsified forms was used to pay Steele's salary and create a retirement fund for her and it paid for salaries for family members who did a minimal amount of work for the program. Steele was also accused of using the program's credit card for personal purchases, including an exercise bike.

Steele was also accused of falsifying mileage so she could claim reimbursements for 1,500 miles of monthly program-related travel she did not actually do. She did not report the money on her personal income tax returns, meaning she owes about $10,128 in taxes for the fraudulent mileage.

Other employees and members of the volunteer board for the program began investigating Steele's actions with the help of federal authorities in 2016. The program had to close in late 2017 because of the fraud.

Steele has also been accused of stealing money before.

Steele entered a guilty plea in 2003 to an allegation she stole more than $100,000 that belonged to a school or place of worship, according to Rock Island County court records. Her sentence was initially three years in the Illinois Department of Corrections and paying $188,032 as restitution. It was later reduced to 180 days in the county jail with and three years of probation because she made restitution and paid court costs.Steele completed her probation in that case in February 2006.

Before the sentence was imposed on Tuesday, Steele said she was trying to grow the organization through her actions so more children could be served.

"It was the wrong way to do it, and I am truly sorry," she said.

Shadid told Steele before announcing the sentence that her statement appeared to him to be less than remorseful.

Several other people associated with the program attended the hearing at the behest of prosecution, though they declined to speak before the court. After, however, Jackie Celske, treasurer of the QCACFP 's board, said that the Two Rivers YMCA has begun a similar program that will serve meals to children.

David VanLandegen, another of the group, said that he was relieved that someone has picked up the program. Of what happened in court Tuesday, he said justice was served — Steele was held accountable.


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