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Last November, Aimee Bock went to the police with an account about having received a peculiar text message and email.
According to a Rosemount police incident report that came out of Bock’s allegations, the message relayed updates to the personal information in her US Bank account. She next went to a store and tested her debit card. The card didn’t work, Bock told the officer, Anis Ahmetovic.
She said she then checked her mobile account and found it had been updated with a new phone number and a new email address.
That new email and phone number, she said, belonged to her former business partner and onetime best friend: Kara Lomen.
As recounted in the incident report, Bock, 41, accused Lomen of hacking into her personal banking account. Bock wasn’t worried about Lomen stealing her money, Ahmetovic wrote, but rather over how Lomen might “stalk her transaction history.”
Officer Ahmetovic ultimately found no evidence to support Bock’s allegation against Lomen, and would close the case one month later.
Through her attorney, Lomen, 43, contends that Bock’s bank hacking allegations amount to fiction. “This simply did not happen,” said Mark Weinhardt in a statement to Sahan Journal. “Ms. Lomen accessed no account belonging to Ms. Bock.”
At the time of Bock’s incident report, the FBI had already spent six months investigating her nonprofit, Feeding Our Future, for allegedly defrauding the federal government. Two months later, federal agents would deploy 200 federal and state law enforcement personnel to raid 15 properties, including Feeding Our Future, as part of the investigation. An unsealed federal search warrant would also accuse Bock of taking a $310,000 kickback from a client.
Today, Bock’s lawyer Kenneth Udoibok alleges that the “genesis” of the FBI’s kickback allegation came from Lomen. Lomen spotted a $310,000 deposit in Bock’s account, Udoibok alleges, and then photocopied and reported the transaction to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Udoibok did not provide any evidence for this suspicion. And Lomen’s attorney denies she did any such thing.
The alleged bank hack represents one confusing incident in a series of barbed interactions between Bock, Lomen, and various authorities that seem to have culminated in the federal criminal investigation. These include emails to state employees, where Lomen pointed out alleged fraud at other organizations and companies in her field.
For a few years, both Bock and Lomen ran two sprawling—and now embattled—organizations: Feeding Our Future (Bock) and Partners in Quality Care (Lomen). Their competing organizations helped connect federal nutrition funding to hundreds of nonprofits, including daycares, religious organizations, and community centers. Those nonprofits would then feed thousands of children, many from immigrant families.
Every month, both organizations supplied the Minnesota Department of Education with reports on the meals their contractors had served. The Department of Education then sent the meal counts to the federal government for compensation. During the pandemic, these reimbursements amounted to millions of dollars each month.
FBI search warrants filed two months after the police incident between Bock and Lomen allege that the $310,000 payment was a kickback Bock received from Abdulkadir Nur Salah, the co-owner of Minneapolis-based Safari Restaurant and Event Center. Safari was a client of Feeding Our Future and an enrolled vendor in the food program.
Abdulkadir’s attorney, Surya Saxena, declined to comment on the specific allegations, but told Sahan Journal that Abdulkadir “maintains his innocence” from all FBI allegations against him and has not been charged with a crime.
The FBI accuses Feeding Our Future and several of its contractors, including Safari Restaurant, of orchestrating a grand scheme to defraud the federal government by embezzling tens of millions of dollars. Bock and her attorney deny any wrongdoing, and instead allege that the federal investigation is incomplete and rooted in bad information that the Minnesota Department of Education sent to the FBI.
That “bad information,” Bock and her attorney now claim, includes allegations reported to the Department of Education by Lomen.
A Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson, Ashleigh Norris, said the department would not address the claims from Bock’s attorney’s that it was Lomen who disclosed the $310,000 transaction. (Norris cited the ongoing FBI investigation.) An FBI spokesperson also declined to comment on whether the information leading to the kickback allegation came from Lomen or the Minnesota Department of Education.
Neither Bock nor Lomen would speak directly to Sahan Journal about their friendship and falling out—and whether that ultimately played out in the criminal investigation. But their attorneys weighed in on Bock and Lomen’s past allegations against each other and denied any wrongdoing on behalf of their clients.
Lomen says an unauthorized bank login may have happened—and her company was the victim
After the Rosemount police officer contacted Lomen and Matthew Eslick, an attorney for Lomen who dealt with the hacking case, Eslick leveled his own allegations—against Bock. He said what Bock really saw in her bank statement that day were changes Lomen made to a Partners in Quality Care business account to which Bock once had access—and might still have been logging into.
Eslick, in a written report filed with the police, claimed that on the same afternoon that Bock called the police on Lomen, Lomen received emails from her bank saying someone had changed her own bank information. The alleged intruder, Lomen said, tried to start a new savings and checking account.
Eslick added that Lomen was “considering aggressive civil remedies to address Ms. Bock’s possible unauthorized access to PIQC’s [Partners in Quality Care’s] corporate accounts.”
When Ahmetovic called Bock to tell her Lomen’s explanation, Bock stuck to her story. Bock maintained that the bank changes she’d spotted applied only to her personal account and not to Lomen’s business account. Today, Bock’s attorney denies the counter-allegations from Lomen’s camp and still sticks to Bock’s story.
The police weren’t the only ones who wrestled with Bock’s explanation. “The US Bank representative was unsure how this was possible,” Ahmetovic added.
Coworkers become rivals
Before Aimee Bock got involved in federal food aid programs, she worked as a childcare instructor. Bock graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2003 with a degree in elementary education. She then joined a daycare company called Knowledge Universe, working her way up from instructor to center director. Bock went on to work for an education trade group called Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children, where she helped child-care organizations manage accreditation.
At the beginning of the 2010s, Bock says, she started to launch her own daycare organization in Burnsville. She wouldn’t actually incorporate it until the fall of 2019, just months before the pandemic hit.
Bock and Lomen had met and developed a business relationship by the mid-2010s. Lomen founded Partners in Nutrition in 2015; Bock joined the organization the same year. (Today the organization does business mostly under a related name, Partners in Quality Care.)
According to its nonprofit tax statements, Partners in Quality Care’s mission is to help child-care centers access meals through a federal food program. The nonprofit, headquartered on West 7th Avenue, in St. Paul, also consults with child care centers on tasks like classroom design, classroom supplies, facility maintenance, and administration.
Bock has previously stated she got involved in federal food aid to open doors for communities of color who don’t have easy access to such programs. Bock would work for Partners in Quality Care until 2018, serving in an executive role.
Lomen also has a college degree in elementary education, which she obtained from the College of St. Benedict. Lomen also has a master’s degree in educational leadership from Concordia University St. Paul. Before founding Partners in Quality Care, Lomen worked as an elementary and middle school teacher and eventually became director of a daycare program.
Like Bock, Lomen transitioned from teacher to administrator. Lomen soon worked as a senior project coordinator at the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children. There, alongside Bock, she trained and provided continuing education for daycare providers.
At some point, Lomen and Bock’s relationship grew bitter. Lomen would later tell Ahmetovic, the Rosemount police officer, that she’d had issues with Bock. As a result, in 2018, Partners in Quality Care asked Bock to leave the nonprofit.
Bock soon started building up Feeding Our Future. Bock, Lomen, and a third partner had incorporated Feeding Our Future two years prior without starting any operations, according to public documents. Lomen, meanwhile, remained with Partners in Quality Care.
Food aid becomes a big business during the pandemic shutdown
Both organizations’ revenues ballooned during the pandemic, as schools closed and families looked for ways to replace school breakfasts and lunches.
Feeding Our Future’s food sites grew by 35 percent from 2019 to 2020, and its federal food aid compensation jumped from $3.4 million to $43 million, according to the unsealed FBI search warrants. That growth would explode in 2021, when the nonprofit pulled in $198 million of federal food aid money.
Partners in Quality Care rapidly expanded from $5 million in federal food aid money in 2019 to $21 million in 2020, according to Department of Education records. As with Feeding Our Future, Partners in Quality Care registered huge growth in 2021, collecting $191 million of federal food money.
In the summer of 2020, the Minnesota Department of Education started raising concerns about Feeding Our Future’s fast growth, said Norris, the department spokesperson. According to a timeline of events provided by the Department of Education, the state first directed its questions to the nonprofit itself, and then added the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In December 2020, the Department of Education says, it denied dozens of the organization’s food-site applications.
Feeding Our Future responded by filing a lawsuit against the department, accusing it of illegally denying children the meals they needed by refusing to approve new food sites for the nonprofit. The lawsuit noted that its contractors were largely run by people of color, providing meals to children of color, and accused the department of discrimination.
The contentious relationship between the nonprofit and the state continued. In January and March of 2021, the Department of Education says, it twice found Feeding Our Future “seriously deficient” for not employing enough staff to account for its rapid growth and for failing to submit a required 2019 internal audit. The Department of Education then froze federal money from flowing to Feeding Our Future.
In April 2021, a state judge told the Department of Education in court that it hadn’t gathered enough evidence to justify halting Feeding Our Future’s federal payments. The state soon resumed federal payments to the nonprofit. Meanwhile, the Department of Education brought the matter to the FBI.
The FBI opened an investigation in May 2021.
Bock says state retaliation led to federal investigation
Ever since the January raids, Bock has argued that the federal investigation is a result of the Department of Education retaliating against her for filing the 2020 lawsuit against the state.
Norris, however, said the department’s actions stem from concerns it started raising with Feeding Our Future in the summer of 2020 over the rapid growth in food sites. The state agency does not have investigative authority over the Child Nutrition Programs, Norris said.
In March 2021, the Department of Education found Feeding Our Future “seriously deficient” for a second time. But this time, the state agency made the same finding about Partners in Quality Care, citing its “failure to conform to performance standards,” Norris said.
If you are a regular reader of Sahan Journal, you probably have seen one or two stories on our website about the alleged misuse of millions of dollars in federal funds intended for feeding disadvantaged children and adults in Minnesota. Our coverage of this sprawling story has focused on nonprofit organizations, businesses, and key people…
In January of this year, FBI search warrants alleged massive Child Nutrition Programs fraud in Minnesota during the pandemic, focusing on Feeding Our Future and some of its contractors. At least two of the contractors accused of fraud also received federal money through Partners in Quality Care. Although the FBI search warrants mention Partners in Quality Care and Lomen, they do not accuse either of committing fraud.
Days after this happened, the Department of Education sought to terminate its contract for federal child nutrition money with both nonprofits: Feeding Our Future and Partners in Quality Care.
Partners in Quality Care is now appealing the state’s termination of its contract. Because of this appeal, the Department of Education declined to comment on the state’s battle with Partners in Quality Care.
Meanwhile, Feeding Our Future officially dissolved in February of this year.
Lomen asks state agencies to investigate fraud at other nonprofits
Emails obtained by Sahan Journal suggest that since at least the fall of 2020—a year before the bank hacking allegations—Lomen had been making fraud allegations about the food program, urging the Minnesota Department of Education to investigate. On October 12, 2020, Lomen sent an email to three officials at the Minnesota Department of Education. The simple subject line: “Important.”
“Over the past week several things have been brought to my attention regarding a fraud ring centered around the CACFP, SFSP,” Lomen wrote to Camille Jones, who coordinates the Summer Food Service Program for the Department of Education.
Lomen was referring to the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which together are a part of the federal Child Nutrition Programs. Between these programs, the federal government spends more than $4 billion a year to feed children and adults enrolled in daycare centers and afterschool programs across the country.
The “fraud ring,” Lomen wrote, “involves child care centers, SFSP park sites, at least one restaurant and a sponsoring organization.”
Lomen didn’t name the restaurant or the sponsor in her email. But in internal correspondence obtained by Sahan Journal, two Department of Education staffers suggest the restaurant is Safari. During its participation in the Child Nutrition Programs, Safari had one sponsor it worked with: Feeding Our Future, according to state records.
The fraud was ongoing and so widespread, Lomen alleged in her email, that it was affecting her business, too.
“Unfortunately, this has been going on for quite some time and it is starting to impact some of our sites,” Lomen wrote. “When this has been going on for quite some time, it becomes harder for us to keep it away from our programs.”
Partners in Quality Care was doing all it could to prevent fraud, she wrote. Lomen emphasized that she was “extremely nervous about how all of this will end.” And she expressed anxiety that the media would catch on to the story.
“When this situation is made public,” Lomen wrote, “I would like the records to show that we have been nothing but transparent with our information on what is going on in the field and that we have put forth our best effort to enforce the integrity and mission of the food program.”
After Lomen sent the email, the Department of Education called up Lomen to discuss her complaint. Following the phone call, Lomen had “no further communications with MDE or any other governmental agency about this topic,” Weinhardt, Lomen’s current attorney, said.
The January 2022 FBI raids on Feeding Our Future and its contractors surprised Lomen and Partners in Quality Care, just as they surprised everyone else associated with the food programs, Weinhardt added.
Bock and her lawyer deny all fraud allegations. “Ms. Bock has done nothing unlawful, nothing unethical, and nothing inappropriate,” Udoibok said.
Minnesota Department of Education plays referee
Shortly after Lomen sent her fraud-ring allegations to the Department of Education, Camille Jones texted Emily Honer, a Department of Education supervisor. Jones next moved those messages into an October 26, 2020, email exchange, later obtained by Sahan Journal.
Sahan Journal shared the contents of all emails cited in this story with several sources, including Lomen’s lawyer and the Department of Education. No one challenged their authenticity.
First, Jones emphasized to Honer that Partners in Quality Care—not Feeding Our Future—had been “submitting ineligible sites” for the Summer Food Service Program.
“Interesting!” Honer responded.
Honer then said that they should respond to Lomen about her fraud allegations.
“Do we know other details?” Honer wrote. “It would help if Kara [Lomen] or whomever she is getting information from can submit a complaint to us further. We can’t do much without a name and more details.”
Jones replied that many people reporting these allegations to Lomen often don’t give her direct details because “they don’t want to get others in trouble.”
“I can guess that the restaurant mentioned in the email is Safari,” Jones continued, “since she said in a phone conversation with me that ‘everything they are doing is wrong and bad.’”
By Safari, Jones was referring to the Feeding Our Future client suspected of paying a kickback to Bock.
Jones told Honer that she had immediately responded to Lomen to confirm that she got the complaint and thanked Lomen for sending the tip.
“No problem at all,” Lomen wrote back. “I just wanted to distance ourselves as much as we can from what is happening. That was the intent of the email.”
At other times, however, Department of Education officials appeared to tire of hearing Lomen’s complaints.
That seeming impatience comes through in an August 2020 email sent to Jones by Jeanette Johnson-Reed, who supervises compliance for the Child and Adult Care Food Program. In this email, Johnson-Reed is discussing a complaint Lomen sent about Feeding Our Future—unrelated to Lomen’s fall 2020 fraud-ring allegation.
“She has had a lot of complaints and speculation with no facts to support them,” Johnson-Reed wrote. “I don’t want you or other staff to have to address her speculations.”
Instead, Johnson-Reed wrote, “Kara’s complaints should be directed toward me.”