The director of the nonprofit Feeding Our Future and 46 others have been charged over a “massive scheme” that federal prosecutors say defrauded the government of more than $250 million to help children in need during the COVID-19 pandemic feed.
At a news conference in Minneapolis on Tuesday, US Attorney Andrew Luger described this as the country’s largest pandemic fraud, and the charges amount to one of the largest federal fraud cases ever brought in Minnesota.
Six indictments were unsealed Tuesday detailing alleged crimes including conspiracy to wire fraud, money laundering and bribery. Three other people linked to the system are being charged over crime information. An indictment document usually signals an impending guilty plea.
US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement that the charges “underscore the Justice Department’s continued commitment to combating pandemic fraud and holding those who perpetrate it accountable.”
Luger described today’s wave of indictments as “the first indictment.”
Aimee Bock, executive director of Feeding Our Future, was among the accused. Feeding Our Future, which sponsored websites that received federal dollars to feed children, was at the center of every charge brought in this month’s ongoing investigation. The separate indictments allege schemes of up to $40 million each committed by groups sponsored by Feeding Our Future that falsely claimed to be feeding millions of children during the pandemic.
Overall, prosecutors estimated that the co-conspirators were reimbursed by the US Department of Agriculture’s child feeding programs for about 125 million meals that they did not actually serve.
“Instead of feeding children, the defendants took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting program changes to enrich themselves by fraudulently diverting millions of dollars of federal child-feeding program funds,” an indictment said.
Co-conspirators are accused of using tens of millions of dollars to fund international travel, buy luxury cars and buy new homes in Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky and along the coasts of Kenya and Turkey.
Tuesday’s arrests mark the latest high-profile chapter in a federal investigation that began more than a year ago and included a full-blown FBI search warrant operation in January that became public.
According to the indictment, the program took advantage of changes in the federal child nutrition program designed to ensure children in need were adequately fed during the pandemic.
As part of the changes, the USDA allowed for-profit restaurants to participate in the federal food assistance program and to provide food to children outside of educational programs. Prosecutors said state stay-at-home orders and telecommuting policies made oversight of the food aid program difficult, leaving it vulnerable to fraud and abuse.
Feeding Our Future was an approved sponsor of the state child feeding program, and Bock has been responsible for recruiting and supporting state food aid agencies under her organization’s sponsorship. Other Feeding Our Future employees have been charged, and the prosecution alleges that Feeding Our Future accepted bribes and kickbacks from people who wanted to join the fraud scheme.
Bock is charged alongside employee Abdikerm Abdelahi Eidleh. Bock and her company recruited individuals and organizations to open more than 200 federal food program locations throughout Minnesota, according to the charges.
“The sites fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children every day within just a few days or weeks of their inception, despite having few, if any, employees and little to no experience serving that quantity of meals “, says the indictment.
Bock told the Star Tribune earlier this year that she has never stolen money or seen evidence of fraud at her subcontractors.
The indictment states that Feeding Our Future also opened its own federal food aid offices in Minneapolis and Burnsville, which allegedly falsely claimed to serve meals to thousands of children daily, seven days a week.
The locations allegedly submitted fake documents claiming to serve children’s meals at their locations and fake bills purporting to document their grocery purchases. Some bought and served small amounts of food but increased the numbers, according to the indictment.
The websites also submitted fake attendance records, detailing the name and age of each child they claimed received meals daily. But the lists used false names – in one case allegedly from a website called www.listofrandomnames.com – and conspirators used a formula to insert a random age between 7 and 17 into the spreadsheets. According to one indictment, this would result in different age groups appearing next to the children’s names on each bill.
According to the indictment, Feeding Our Future “dramatically increased” both the number of sites under its sponsorship and the amount of federal food aid received by the sites from 2019 to 2021: During that time, the company went from receiving and disbursing to over 3.4 Millions of dollars in federal funding for sponsors up to nearly $200 million.
Overall, the indictment states that Feeding Our Future “fraudulently received and paid more than $240 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds during the COVID-19 pandemic,” and nearly $18 million in 2021 pocketed in management fees for sponsoring the sites.
Bock, Eidleh and other Feeding Our Future employees are now accused of soliciting and accepting bribes and kickbacks from individuals and companies sponsored by Bock’s organization – what prosecutors described as a “pay-to-play scheme”.
Many of the kickbacks were paid in cash or disguised as “consultancy fees” to shell companies set up by Feeding Our Future staff in order to disguise the true nature of the payments and make them appear legitimate, the indictment said.
The 58-page, 60-count indictment also includes charges against three men — Salim Ahmed Said, Abdulkadir Nur Salah and Abdirahman Mohamud Ahmed — who run the Safari restaurant in Minneapolis. They said they served 3.9 million meals to children between April 2020 and November 2021, backed by fake attendance records.
According to indictments, Safari received more than $16 million in federal funds based on allegations that they supported children in need. Said and Salah sent much of the money to co-conspirators through shell companies used for money laundering. The Safari property also paid more than $350,000 in bribes and kickbacks to Bock and Eidleh for sponsorships.
In all, Eidleh is accused of depositing more than $5 million in kickbacks, bribes and other fraud proceeds into bank accounts opened on behalf of his shell companies.
Officials at the Minnesota Department of Education began questioning Bock about the sudden boom in 2020 in websites sponsored by her organization. Feeding Our Future sued the state, alleging that the Department of Education discriminated against a nonprofit that works with ethnic minorities after the department stopped payments to the nonprofit in early 2021. The FBI investigation into Feeding Our Future began in May 2021, after state education officials had submitted information to the FBI.
The nonprofit’s three board members voted in February to partially disband the organization because their bank accounts were frozen as part of the federal investigation.
Bock accused the Minnesota Department of Education of submitting a falsified criminal case to federal authorities to derail their civil suit against the state, which went to trial in April.
According to court documents, the government seized more than $3.5 million from a Feeding Our Future bank account and more than $185,000 from Bock’s personal bank accounts. Authorities also stole $13,462 in cash and a 2013 Porsche Panamera during the Jan. 20 search warrant operation at Bock’s home.
Prosecutors estimate the investigation has led to the seizure of around $50 million related to the plan so far.
Indictments released Tuesday also describe an unnamed sponsor of a food program, referred to only as “Sponsor A.” Like Feeding Our Future, the sponsor has grown from a small pre-pandemic nonprofit to a dramatic increase in the number of sponsored locations and the amount of federal dollars awarded to them. “Sponsor A” grew from receiving and disbursing approximately $5.6 million in federal funds to its locations in 2019 to more than $200 million in 2021.
At least one defendant – Fahad Nur – is charged with fleeing the United States shortly after the FBI raids in January. Nur is charged with four others in an indictment alleging a $25 million fraud scheme. Sponsored by Feeding Our Future, Nur’s the Produce LLC has raised more than $11 million in federal funding as a vendor and caterer for locations participating in the program.
Prosecutors say he made no significant grocery-related purchases between the start of grocery operations around March 2021 and September this year, yet received $3.5 million for groceries he allegedly provided under the program. Days before the company registered with the state of Minnesota, Nur filed fraudulent bills to Feeding Our Future, claiming to have shipped 3,635 gallons of milk and more than 7,000 boxed lunches to another co-defendant, according to the indictment.
Other fees include:
- Abdiaziz Farah and Mohamed Ismail, co-owners of Empire Cuisine and Market LLC in Shakopee, which along with others opened more than 30 federal food aid locations across the state. The two are part of an eight-person indictment over alleged $40 million fraud.
- Liban Yasin Alishire, President and Owner of Community Enhancement Services Inc., based at the JigJiga Business Center in Minneapolis. Alishire helped run Lake Street Kitchen LLC with Khadar Jigre Adan and Ahmed Yasin Ali.
- Qamar Ahmed Hassan, owner and operator of S&S Catering Inc., in Minneapolis. Hassan and seven others are charged in an indictment outlining a $17.4 million fraud scheme.
- Sharmake Jama and Ayan Jama who were the directors of Brava Restaurant & Cafe LLC in Rochester. They face charges in a six-person indictment for running a $5.6 million scheme.
- Haji Osman Salad, who operated Haji’s Kitchen LLC in Brooklyn Park. He and four others are accused of running a $25 million fraud conspiracy.