Abdiaziz Farah, the founder and director of Gateway STEM Academy, is on unpaid leave from the school after the FBI alleged he was involved in food-aid fraud. The school has not been accused of wrongdoing. Credit: Gateway STEM Academy website

A Burnsville charter school director is on unpaid leave after two federal search warrants alleged that he used money designated for child nutrition programs to purchase a Porsche and a $575,000 house.

The school, Gateway STEM Academy, has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Gateway STEM Academy opened in the fall of 2018 to provide an education based in science and technology to underserved elementary students in the Burnsville area. Last year, it enrolled 221 students, all of whom were Black, according to state data. Most of these students come from East African immigrant families: More than three in four Gateway students speak Somali at home. Community members describe the school as a safe, welcoming, and culturally affirming space for the Somali community in Burnsville.

In late January, Gateway STEM Academy announced on its website that Abdiaziz Farah, its founder and executive director, would be taking a leave of absence effective January 21—the day after a federal court unsealed two search warrants that accused him of misappropriating child nutrition funds. These accusations relate to his business activities outside the school.

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Mahad Ibrahim, the president of the ThinkTechAct Foundation and a former board member of Gateway STEM Academy, is also named in the warrant. Mahad left the board of Gateway STEM Academy this fall. He is accused of funneling millions of dollars of child nutrition funds through shell companies, some of which enriched him personally. 

The FBI alleges that Mahad spent $320,000 of federal child nutrition funds at a custom home-building company in Columbus, Ohio, and $30,000 on cryptocurrency.

One of the search warrants authorized the FBI to search Abdiaziz’s home in Savage and Mahad’s business offices in Edina.

No one in the warrants has been charged with any crimes.

Ed Fellows, Gateway STEM Academy’s principal and interim executive director, said in an interview that the school remains focused on serving its students. Parents have not expressed concerns to him, and enrollment has been up in the past week. 

The FBI allegations

Before founding Gateway STEM Academy, Abdiaziz started Shakopee’s first halal market. Empire Gas and Grocery opened in March 2017 to serve the southwest suburb’s growing Somali population. Minnesota Secretary of State business filings show that in March 2019, Abdiaziz transferred ownership to his business partner, though the same records show Abdiaziz still listed as a manager in July 2020. 

Meanwhile, his business holdings were growing. In April 2020, Abdiaziz registered a new business with the Secretary of State’s office: Empire Cuisine and Market, a Somali restaurant in Shakopee, which opened that spring. The following April, he registered another company, Empire Enterprises LLC.

A pair of FBI search warrants unsealed January 20 in federal court allege that companies controlled in part by Abdiaziz Farah—Empire Gas and Grocery, Empire Cuisine and Market, and Empire Enterprises—received over $10 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds. This money was supposed to provide meals for disadvantaged children during the pandemic.

But most of these funds were not used to feed children, the FBI search warrant alleges. According to investigators, Abdiaziz Farah, along with the other owners of Empire businesses, “fraudulently misappropriated” these funds to purchase cars, real estate, and other luxury items.

Much of this money was allegedly funneled through the ThinkTechAct Foundation, where Mahad Ibrahim is president. The ThinkTechAct Foundation received more than $16 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funding between February and November 2021, according to the warrant.

The money came through two intermediaries: $14 million from Partners in Quality Care and $2 million from Feeding Our Future, both sponsor organizations for local groups providing food aid. In all, more than $10 million of these funds was transferred to Empire Cuisine and Market accounts owned or controlled in part by Abdiaziz Farah. 

Empire Cuisine and Market also received funds directly from Feeding Our Future to provide food service for a site in Burnsville. 

Some of these funds, the FBI alleges, were used directly to enrich Abdiaziz Farah. The FBI believes he used Federal Child Nutrition Program funds to purchase a $575,000 house in Savage and a $29,000 Porsche.

The search warrant also alleges that Empire Enterprises LLC also spent more than $700,000 in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds to purchase property in Nairobi, Kenya. Another $1,000,000 went to purchase lakefront property in Prior Lake.

Abdiaziz Farah and Mahad Ibrahim did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Gateway STEM Academy school board met February 1 for the first time since the allegations were made public. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Gateway moves forward

On February 1, the Gateway STEM Academy school board met for the first time since the allegations were made public. Two teachers who serve on the school board, principal Ed Fellows, and a Sahan Journal reporter gathered in a small room at the school, while the rest of the board joined over Zoom. 

The board voted to accept Abdiaziz’s request, dated January 23, for an unpaid leave of absence. The resolution cited “personal reasons” and requested the board approve his leave effective January 24. 

The board also voted to name principal Ed Fellows as the interim executive director and to remove Abdiaziz from the school’s bank accounts. The board did not discuss the allegations, but praised Fellows for stepping into leadership last week.

The rest of the meeting focused on a routine review of enrollment and finances, and plans to set a future board election date.

After the meeting, Fellows said in an interview with Sahan Journal that school leaders remained focused on the school, not the allegations.

“We’re really not letting that impact or focus in our direction,” he said. “We don’t control what happens outside of school. So we’re just going to make sure that we worry about the things that we come to school for, and worry about the kids and take care of our school community during the school hours.” 

After many years working in schools, Fellows said, he’d learned not to jump to conclusions before all the facts come out.

“It’s really important not to react to allegations because we don’t get both sides of the story,” he said.

What was his experience like working with Abdiaziz?

“Wonderful,” Fellows said. “He is deeply rooted in the communities. You will never find him not giving of his time. He’s had a positive impact in so many ways, in the Gateway family here at school and also in the Somali community.”

Most important, he said, and regardless of an outcome, the school would remain focused on its students. 

“Kids are coming to school every day needing us in our best effort,” Fellows said. “So that’s really what I’m communicating to the staff. We really want to make sure that our school keeps doing the things that we’re doing, to the best of our ability.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...