Federal prosecutors charged 48 people Tuesday for their roles in the alleged embezzlement of more than $250 million from government programs intended to feed low-income families, in the largest case of COVID pandemic fraud in the nation.
The criminal charges include conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and bribery. At a news conference Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger outlined how the scheme worked, its players, and the criminal charges against them.
“Their goal was to make as much money for themselves as they could while falsely claiming to feed children during the pandemic,” Luger said. “Before long, it grew to become the largest pandemic fraud in the United States.”
Aimee Bock, executive director of the now-defunct Feeding Our Future, allegedly recruited dozens of individuals to open more than 200 food sites. Investigators allege that in a little over 20 months, these operations fraudulently reported providing more than 125 nonexistent million meals to children.
One site in Willmar claimed to be feeding 2,000 children per week—a number that would represent half the school-aged children in town. But only 33 names on the feeding site’s reimbursement list matched names of real children from the school district.
Instead, Luger said, the suspects created fake names with a random online name generator and pocketed millions in reimbursement funds. In some cases, suspects used an Excel formula to randomly generate ages between 7 and 17 to fill out the reporting forms. The randomly generated names were often matched with different randomly generated ages from one month to the next.
Federal authorities assembled an impressive case, said Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor emeritus Joseph Daly, but financial fraud cases of such magnitude with so many defendants are complex and challenging.
“All of these people are charged with very, very, very serious crimes that can get them in prison for quite a long time,” Daly said. “These are difficult cases to prove, but they [prosecutors] laid out an indictment that’s quite remarkable and quite stunning, to be able to gather all this information in a period of a year and a half.
“None of this is open and shut.”
‘Stealing…at a breakneck pace’
Luger said the suspects moved quickly and established meal sites and companies almost overnight. Defendants allegedly created fake food invoices to cover up the fraud, and false food sites sent kickbacks to Feeding Our Future employees who established fake LLCs to launder the money.
“The defendants worked incredibly fast, stealing for themselves at a breakneck pace,” Luger said.
To date, law enforcement has seized 60 bank accounts, 14 vehicles, and 45 pieces of property valued at more than $50 million.
“We continue to find and seize property,” Luger said.
Some examples of property subject to forfeiture in one indictment include:
- eight pieces of property in Minnesota, Kentucky, and Ohio
- seven cars, including a Porsche Macan and Tesla Model Y
- bank accounts holding millions of dollars
- miscellaneous electrical devices, jewelry, clothing, and accessories
- a Louis Vuitton duffle bag seized from a 2021 Dodge Ram 1500.
Federal authorities charge leaders in politics, business, education
The indictments announced Tuesday have ensnared influential political players, nonprofit executives, and education leaders. Among those charged today include:
- Aimee Bock, founder and former executive director of the nonprofit Feeding Our Future
- Abdi Salah, former senior policy aide to Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey
- Sharmarke Issa, former board chair of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority
- Abdiaziz Farah, a south metro businessman and the founder and former executive director of a charter school in Burnsville
- Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff, chief executive officer of Afrique Hospitality Group
- Mahad Ibrahim, entrepreneur, president and owner of ThinkTechAct Foundation
- Abdirahman Mohamud Ahmed, also known as “Chef Abcos,” owner and operator of Safari Restaurant
Sahan Journal has compiled a full list of people charged in Tuesday’s indictments. An indictment is a legal document that accuses someone of a crime.
Attorneys for several defendants declined comment or did not return messages Tuesday seeking comment. Many defendants did not have attorneys and were represented by the public defender’s office when they made their first appearance in court Tuesday afternoon.
“My client is going to defend herself fully, and we entered a not guilty plea today and we look forward to defending this in court,” said Amy Conners, who is representing Qamar Hassan.
Qamar is the owner of S&S Catering, a business implicated in the alleged fraud.
Five organizations at the center of the alleged fraud scheme
The investigation centers on the use of federal money—some $4 billion a year, nationwide—that normally goes to Child Nutrition Programs. The Minnesota Department of Education distributed these food-aid funds to “sponsor organizations,” which then disseminated the money to their contract vendors or “food sites.”
These smaller nonprofits, religious institutions, and other groups were supposed to feed children from lower-income families.
Federal authorities said in previously released court documents that many vendors committed extensive fraud while working with sponsor organization Feeding Our Future.
The criminal charges revolve around the various players in six organizations. These include:
- Safari Restaurant & Event Center, a popular south Minneapolis restaurant also known as a community hub and fixture.
- S&S Catering, a food vendor located in south Minneapolis on East Lake Street, one block from Safari Restaurant.
- Empire Cuisine and Market, a Shakopee-based restaurant and grocery store located in a strip mall that opened in 2020.
- Brava Restaurant & Cafe, a Rochester-based restaurant that served as a food vendor for the federal meals program.
- Haji’s Kitchen, a restaurant in Crystal that also served as a food vendor for the federal meals program.
- JigJiga Business Center, a south Minneapolis mall and event center housing several businesses that “purported to be in the business of providing meals,” according to a federal indictment.
“The suspects in this case weren’t interested in feeding our future—they were interested in feeding their own gluttony,” said Michael Paul, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis field office.
In response to a question from journalists at the end of his news conference, U.S. Attorney Luger said that some defendants have fled the country.
Federal prosecutors unsealed criminal charges against a 48th defendant—Mekfira Hussein—late Tuesday afternoon.
According to a federal affidavit: Mekfira ran the nonprofit Shamsia Hopes, which contracted with Feeding Our Future. Shamsia Hopes received nearly $7 million from the federal Child Nutrition Programs between 2020 and 2021.
Mekfira allegedly booked a one-way flight to Ethiopia this past Saturday that was set to leave Tuesday evening.
The affidavit against Mekfira alleges that she bribed Feeding Our Future employee Abdikerm Abdellahi Eidleh with kickbacks for enrolling her nonprofit in the federal Child Nutrition Programs. It also alleges she spent scores of food-aid money on luxury personal items, including a new Porsche and a Tesla.
Mekfira did not return phone calls and messages from Sahan Journal seeking comment.
Too many vendors, too many meals? The FBI launched its investigation into alleged food-aid fraud in May 2021. The previous month, Minnesota Department of Education officials raised concerns about the rapid growth in the number of vendors Feeding Our Future reported working with and the overall number of meals the organization reported overseeing.
The money came from two federal programs used to feed children and adults in daycare and afterschool programs: the Child and Adult Care Program and the Summer Food Service Program. The alleged fraud was simple at its foundation: Some organizations along the money chain reported serving more meals than they actually did. This enabled the organizations to receive more federal reimbursement dollars. Typically, children receive free meals through schools–operations that shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Investigation has targeted now-defunct Feeding Our Future and Aimee Bock
Properties raided by the FBI in January included the offices of Feeding Our Future, a now-defunct St. Anthony nonprofit at the center of the federal investigation; and the home of its executive director, Aimee Bock. Feeding Our Future served as a sponsor organization.
Bock is one of several people charged with criminal indictments on Tuesday. FBI search warrants unsealed earlier this year allege that Bock used food-aid money on cars and furniture.
Bock has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing since the allegations surfaced earlier this year. Her attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, said Tuesday that she is innocent.
Likewise, federal authorities allege in search warrants and other court documents that many of the vendors who worked with Feeding Our Future committed widespread fraud.
Feeding Our Future received $3.4 million in federal food-aid money in 2019, $43 million in 2020, and $198 million in 2021. Bock and her attorney have previously accused the Minnesota Department of Education of discriminating against her organization, noting that immigrants and people of color make up most of the vendors she worked with, and most of the kids who ate meals under Feeding Our Future’s umbrella.
Food vendors allegedly received hundreds of millions of dollars through fraud
Safari Restaurant & Event Center, which worked with Feeding Our Future, claimed to be feeding 5,000 kids a day at its south Minneapolis restaurant in the summer of 2020.
Federal authorities allege in the charging documents that one of the owners of the restaurant, Abdulkadir Nur Salah, allegedly co-purchased a $2.7 million mansion on Park Avenue in Minneapolis using food-aid money.
He also allegedly paid Bock a $310,000 kickback using the federal funds. Bock previously said that money came from the sale of a childcare center. In a March interview with Sahan Journal, Abdulkadir’s attorney, Surya Saxena, denied all of the allegations previously detailed in unsealed FBI search warrants.
“Mr. Salah maintains his innocence,” Saxena said at the time.
Fraud charges reach into Shakopee, Bloomington
Another food vendor prominently featured in the FBI investigation is Shakopee-based Empire Cuisine & Market, a restaurant and grocery store.
Abdiaziz Farah, 33, and Mohamed Jama Ismail, 49, both ran Empire Cuisine. The FBI alleges that Empire Cuisine has received at least $27 million in federal Child Nutrition Programs money since 2021. Instead of serving meals, federal prosecutors allege that both men embezzled most of this money and spent it on luxury purchases for themselves.
Federal prosecutors charged both men earlier this year with passport fraud and accused them of trying to flee the country in order to avoid prosecution in the food-aid investigation. Both were charged Tuesday with wire fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and money laundering.
Prosecutors also charged Abdiaziz with several additional counts of fraud. According to the passport fraud charges, Abdiaziz allegedly spent $2.5 million on two lots and the construction of an 8,000-square-foot home in Prior Lake. The indictments also accuse him of spending $1.5 million in investments in China and Kenya, and $1 million on a commercial building and church in Louisville, Kentucky, among several luxury purchases.
Lawyers for Abdiaziz and Mohamed have previously denied the financial fraud allegations. Abdiaziz’s attorney, Andy Birrell, told the court in May that he and his client would fight any potential such charges.
“The government has a theory of the case, and we absolutely disagree with it,” Birrell said at a hearing in the passport fraud case.
Another prominent business figure charged Tuesday: Mukhtar Shariff, CEO of Afrique Hospitality Group. Months ago, Afrique had grand plans. The restaurant, located in a Bloomington office park near the Mall of America, announced intentions to build an African “cultural campus” with a restaurant, a business incubator hub, and an event center.
Mukhtar told Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal the campus would bring East African cuisine to the mainstream market and create a hub for entrepreneurs. Afrique reported raising $3 million from the community and sought a $1.4 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
But prosecutors on Tuesday said Afrique was actually a shell company created in January 2021 to launder defrauded food program dollars. Mukhtar is charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and money laundering. Federal authorities say Mukhtar used Afrique to give a $250,000 cashier’s check to a Feeding Our Future employee as a kickback.
On Tuesday, a Home Depot canvas covered the Afrique sign advertising the office park. Ladders and construction equipment were visible inside the building, but no workers were present.
Fraud investigation affects local leaders, elected officials
The food-aid scandal also touched the corridors of power in Minneapolis city government and DFL elected officials on the state and federal level. In February, Abdi Salah, the senior aide to Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, stepped down from his position after allegations surfaced that he’d bought property with food-aid money.
Abdi Salah is the brother of Abdulkadir Nur Salah. Abdulkadir is one of the owners of Safari Restaurant & Event Center, which reported feeding 5,000 children a day while working with Feeding Our Future.
Similarly, in February, Sharmarke Issa left his role as board chair of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. The U.S. Attorney’s office had filed for forfeiture of an apartment complex he owned with Abdi Salah. Federal authorities allege the property had been purchased with food-aid money.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors indicted Abdi Salah with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Sharmarke was charged with wire fraud and money laundering. They’ve both previously denied wrongdoing and said they left their jobs for unrelated personal reasons.
Frey, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and state Senator Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, all returned or donated campaign contributions they received from people named in the investigation.
Hibah Ansari and Becky Z. Dernbach contributed to this report.