FBI raids Twin Cities businesses suspected of ‘massive fraud’ in child food programs – InForum
ST. PAUL — A Twin Cities nonprofit and a network of commercial operators have stolen tens of millions of dollars of federal funds meant to help feed children in need while schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the court records.
More than 200 agents from the FBI and other state and federal agencies raided more than a dozen locations Thursday, including the St. Anthony offices of Feeding Our Future and the Rosemount home of its director, Aimee Bock.
FBI alleges in search warrant affidavits that Feeding Our Future, the state’s largest independent sponsor of federal food programs, submitted false reimbursement records and conspired with business owners who stole and laundered funds in a “massive fraud” involving front companies, kickbacks and dozens of bank accounts.
“The companies and their owners have received tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to use to provide nutritious meals to underprivileged children and adults,” an FBI agent wrote. “Almost none of this money was used to feed the children. Instead, participants in the scheme embezzled the money and used it to buy real estate, cars and other luxury items. .
No criminal charges have been filed and the FBI said it did not arrest anyone Thursday.
The Minnesota Department of Education on Thursday decided to end Feeding Our Future as a sponsor and cut funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program and the Food Program of child and adult care.
The department also suspended reimbursements from a second sponsor, Partners in Nutrition — also known as Partners in Quality Care — based on information in the search warrants. Bock worked for Partners in Nutrition.
The two federal food programs generally provide meals for needy children during the summer when schools are closed, as well as meals and snacks for children in child care centers and after-school programs.
But at the start of the pandemic, when many schools closed to control the virus, the USDA expanded eligibility for its food programs, allowing restaurants to participate, allowing meals in high-income neighborhoods and allowing distribution of multi-day food packs to be eaten off-site.
Meanwhile, many employees of the Minnesota Department of Education, which oversees food programs, have been ordered to work from home.
“According to MDE officials, this has made the program vulnerable to fraud and abuse,” the FBI wrote.
The Department of Education’s workload has spiked due to new USDA rules. It typically receives about 80 requests each year for new restaurant sites. In the first half of 2021, it received 838 requests.
Concerned about its inability to verify the claims, the department was set to drastically reduce the number of food distribution sites last summer before caving in to pressure from anti-hunger advocates.
Bock’s Feeding Our Future has been a major beneficiary of USDA’s pandemic waivers.
Founded in 2017, the nonprofit received $3.5 million in food reimbursements in 2019, $42.7 million in 2020 and $197.9 million last year. The sponsor charged a 10% administrative fee on these refunds as part of its contracts with site operators, many of which were run by members of the East African diaspora.
Several site operators have spent little or none of that money on children’s food, according to the FBI.
Feeding Our Future itself claimed to have operated a number of high-volume distribution sites, but visiting FBI agents found the parking lots empty.
The warrants indicate that Feeding Our Future employees, along with several business operators, set up shell companies which they used to hide the program’s proceeds.
The FBI also found evidence that Bock took a $310,000 bribe from one of the companies and that her boyfriend, Empress Malcolm Watson Jr., set up his own front company to hide something. $600,000 in federal money.
No one answered a call to Feeding Our Future’s office on Friday, and the company’s attorney did not return a phone message.
Department of Education spokeswoman Ashleigh Norris said the office reported Feeding Our Future activities to the regional office and the USDA inspector general when the nonprofit organization failed. was unable to explain and document its rapid growth in the summer of 2020.
Then, in November 2020, Feeding Our Future sued the Education Department for taking too long to approve its applications for dozens of new sites, claiming the agency discriminated against minority-owned businesses and families who they served.
A month later, the department denied dozens of site requests for exceeding regulatory limits on the number of children served. He later declared the nonprofit “seriously deficient,” refused further requests to open new sites, and in March halted payments to Feeding Our Future while he worked to verify reimbursement requests.
Among its concerns, the department said Feeding Our Future submits requests for the maximum number of meals each month and the department has received complaints that some registered sites are not serving any meals.
Bock also managed a huge amount of income on her own despite “no formal financial experience or education,” the agency said in response to the lawsuit. “…It is not reasonable for a sponsor to have one person in charge of all operations and finances with an income of this degree.”
Nonetheless, in April 2021, Ramsey County District Judge John Guthmann found the Education Department in contempt of court for violating its agreement to quickly approve new site applications.
The department was ordered to pay the association $47,500; the case is still pending.
That same month, the Department of Education told the FBI that Feeding Our Future “submitted fraudulent documentation to substantiate reimbursement of funds in addition to artificially inflating the number of children and low-income people receiving benefits”, according to a search warrant.
When the FBI began investigating in May, it obtained bank statements it said “showed a massive fraud scheme” and “several companies that were receiving a suspicious amount of refunds.”
Businesses named in the warrants include Safari Restaurant and Event Center in Minneapolis, which claimed to serve 5,000 meals a day, seven days a week, as of July 2020.
The FBI said Safari and related companies received more than $10 million in refunded funds and “nearly nothing” was spent on children’s food.
One of the owners, Salim Said, allegedly spent embezzled funds on a $950,000 house in Plymouth with an indoor basketball court, while another owner, Abdulkadir Nur Salah, gave Bock a bribe. $310,000 wine. The FBI alleged that Said and Ahmed Omar-Hashim spent $2.8 million on an office building in Minneapolis.
Others believed to be linked to the Safari group are Abdihakim Ali Ahmed, Abdirahman Ahmed, Sagal Aden, Hadith Yusuf Ahmed, Ahmed Artan, Ahmed Ghedi, Abdinasir Abshir and Abdikadi Mohamud.
Abdikerm Abdelahi Eidleh and Hadith Yusuf Ahmed, employees of Feeding Our Future, are suspected of setting up shell companies to hide money.
Others named in the warrants include ThinkTechAct, aka Mind Foundry Foundation, operated by Mahad Ibrahim, which reportedly received more than $16 million last year after claiming to feed 160,666 children a day in 10 locations.
The FBI said “little, if any” of that money was actually spent on children’s meals.
Instead, the FBI said most of the money was laundered through several companies and their owners – Abdiwahab Aftin, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur and brothers Abdiaziz and Said Farah, of Bushra Wholesalers and Empire Cuisine and Market – which then bought cars and real estate. field in Minnesota and Kenya.
A major player seems to have been S&S Catering, run by Qamar Ahmed Hassan. The FBI says S&S received $13.8 million in federal funds, either directly from sponsors Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition or from other companies, but spent little of it on children’s food.
Its partners included the St. Paul’s Youth Inventor’s Lab, led by Bekam Merdassa, which received $3.6 million in refunds last year; Academy for Youth Excellence, led by Sahra Mohamed Nur, which received $4.1 million; Guhaad Said’s Advance Youth Athletic Development, aka Central Avenue Lofts, which got $3.2 million; and Filsan Mumin Hassan’s Youth Higher Educational Achievement, which won $1.4 million.
Mara H. Gottfried contributed to this report.