They bilked food program for low-income kids and pocketed millions, feds say

Two business owners who catered to 200 South Florida daycare centers serving low-income children have been charged with fleecing millions from a U.S. government food program.

The pair are accused of inflating the number of meals provided to the daycare centers at the government's expense and of exchanging kickbacks to secure multimillion-dollar catering contracts between 2012 and 2016, according to a federal criminal complaint.

Sandra Ruballo, 46, who owns Highland Food Resources in North Miami-Dade, and Carlos Andres Montoya, 47, who owns Healthy Children Catering in Hialeah, were charged this past week with a wire-fraud conspiracy and remain in custody.

Prosecutors want to detain Ruballo, who lives in Davie, behind bars until trial, saying she is a flight risk. Her defense attorney, Mycki Ratzan, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Montoya, who lives in Miramar, was granted a $700,000 bond but has not posted it. His lawyer, Alvin Entin, said his client "was a victim of extortion" by Ruballo, who is accused of receiving kickbacks from him in exchange for catering contracts. But Entin said Montoya delivered all of the daycare meals for which his company was paid by Ruballo, totaling $8 million.

Arraignments in Miami federal court are scheduled for early May.

According to a U.S. Secret Services complaint, Ruballo's business represented the 200 South Florida daycare centers and arranged to provide their meals on a sliding-price scale through a federal program known as Child Care Food Program. Her business received higher government reimbursements for needy children who qualified for free and discounted meals twice a day.

The complaint, filed by prosecutor Anne McNamara, accuses Ruballo of boosting government reimbursements for children's meals "by adding food stamp numbers, falsifying signatures and modifying reported family-income levels, in order to qualify for more free and reduced meals as part of the [program]." As result, the government paid higher reimbursements to her company and she kept a greater fee in representing the daycare centers, the complaint said.

Ruballo's company, Highland Food Resources, received more than $3.9 million in reimbursements by defrauding the federal food program, according to the complaint.

One of her employees, Yudy Miranda, a former program coordinator, has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing in June.