The year started with a bang. In January, hundreds of law enforcement agents and personnel raided 15 Minnesota properties, marking the opening public salvo of what’s now known as the Feeding Our Future scandal.
The food-aid fraud scandal would dominate headlines in 2022 at Sahan Journal and plenty of other local and national news outlets. But other significant news stories emerged as well.
Here’s a look at what I consider to be the top five stories I reported or contributed reporting to in 2022.
1. Federal authorities charge 48 people in Feeding Our Future investigation—allegedly ‘largest pandemic fraud in the United States.’
Let’s start with what’s estimated to be the largest coordinated government fraud scheme in Minnesota history.
Shortly after the first FBI raids went public, Sahan Journal uncovered donations from people implicated in the scandal to several public officials. It also described how a Minneapolis City Council member incorporated one of the alleged shell companies that later embezzled federal food-aid money. Two high-ranking Minneapolis city officials were also implicated and left their positions.
Aimee Bock, the executive director of Feeding Our Future, denied allegations of fraud and defended herself to the media. But Sahan Journal shed light on her background and the falling-out she had with her former business partner, who was reporting fraud allegations to the state government in fall 2020.
In the fall, Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger charged 50 defendants in the case, five of whom have since pleaded guilty. Luger’s office put a $250 million price tag on the amount of fraud that occurred, which he called “the floor,” and signaled that his office will indict more people.
Expect this story to continue unfolding over the next several months, if not years.
In March, five Somali elders who live in a south Minneapolis highrise told Sahan Journal that an FBI agent had recently interviewed or attempted to interview them about their voting in a 2020 primary election.
The five, who weren’t directly accused of wrongdoing, said they felt the FBI’s actions were intimidating. Their interviews likely came as part of the same federal investigation that led to the conviction of a man with family ties to two Minnesota state senators.
A few months before this, federal prosecutors charged a former campaign volunteer for state Senator Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, with lying to a grand jury. The man, Muse Mohamed, submitted absentee ballots for three voters during the 2020 primary election. The three said they had never met with Muse, and did not know him. But pressed about this multiple times by the grand jury, Muse stuck to his story: He said he got the ballots from the voters themselves.
In May, he took the case to trial and lost. A judge later sentenced him to two years’ probation for lying to the grand jury.
Muse is Omar’s brother-in-law, and also the brother of incoming state Senator Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis.
Omar, meanwhile, testified in a Senate ethics hearing that he wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing in his campaign. The Senate ethics subcommittee subpoenaed Omar’s former campaign manager, who invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions from the subcommittee. The Senate ethics subcommittee then dismissed a complaint against Omar that would have led to an investigation into whether he was involved in election fraud activities.
“There was a lot of smoke, but no fire,” outgoing state Senate President David Osmek, R-Mound, who also chaired the ethics subcommittee, told Sahan Journal following the dismissal. “I’ve got to have fire.”
Whether anything more will come out of the federal investigation into voter fraud is anyone’s guess; the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI remain tight-lipped.
3. Real estate investors sold Somali families on a fast track to homeownership in Minnesota. The buyers risk losing everything.
I came to this story last spring when a source tipped me off about a curious trend going on in local real estate. Homes were being sold twice on the same day. The second sale—the flip—always came at a higher price than the first sale.
I teamed up with Jessica Lussenhop, a local reporter for ProPublica, to investigate. It turns out the homebuyers in these second sales weren’t using a conventional mortgage, but an unusual payment method called a contract for deed. And sellers were pitching the deals specifically to Somali families.
A contract for deed is an alternative way to buy a house. They don’t require banks to check the credit history of the buyer, nor an appraisal of the home being bought. They also lack consumer protections that come with traditional mortgages. For example, a buyer who defaults on their payments through a contract for deed can be evicted from their home and lose everything in just a matter of weeks.
We found this practice proliferating in Minnesota. In 2021, investors sold more than 1,800 contracts for deed in Minnesota’s 11 most populous counties. It’s not clear how many went to Somali families, but one local advocate estimates that about 100 Somalis have recently bought homes through contracts for deed.
Many of these contracts involved newly constructed, multi-bedroom homes that sold in the middle to high six figures. They’re located in attractive suburbs with good schools. Jessica and I spoke with five Somali homebuyers who bought homes this way in the past year. All said they signed contracts that they didn’t understand. One called buying his home this way the biggest mistake of his life.
4. Muslim workers say they suffered religious discrimination at Worldwide Flight Services. After the employees protested, they say supervisors assigned them extra tasks like cleaning bathrooms.
For the past half-decade, workers at several Amazon and Amazon-affiliated warehouses have staged periodic walkouts to protest working conditions.
In 2022, several employees at Worldwide Flight Services, a global company that handles air freight for Amazon, told Sahan Journal that they were being let go for their roles in two December 2021 walkouts. The walkouts at the Eagan warehouse came after a supervisor allegedly made a flippant comment in response to a group of female workers who were on a prayer break.
By the summer of 2022, a dozen of these employees had been either fired or suspended. Worldwide Flight Services denied retaliating against them, instead telling Sahan Journal in a prepared statement that “on occasion, some disgruntled employees decide to take job actions outside of our established processes for resolving conflicts or issues.”
The following fall, employees at an Eagan Amazon facility staged a protest in response to the company eliminating their day shifts. About 30 employees at this facility couldn’t change their hours, according to several employees who spoke with Sahan Journal, and were therefore laid off. In response, an Amazon spokesperson said the company tried to retain the employees and worked with them “to identify other shifts at the facility or nine other sites across the Twin Cities region.”
Both the Worldwide Flight Services and Amazon employee actions came with the support of Awood Center, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that supports East African workers in warehouse jobs. Minneapolis Congresswoman Ilhan Omar mentioned the Amazon walkout at a congressional hearing in November.
5. Mary Davis uses medical cannabis for chronic pain. But Section 8 rules prohibit her from using the medication at home.
What happens when you can’t take your prescribed medicine in the comfort of your own home?
For Mary Davis, it means sneaking to your car throughout the day and discreetly inhaling medical marijuana from her vape pen. In doing so, she risks neighbors or passers-by thinking she’s doing something illegal and calling the police on her.
But because her Section 8 federal subsidies are part of a federal program, and because federal law prohibits marijuana, Davis is caught in a legal Catch-22. Her landlord, the Metropolitan Council, told her she cannot use marijuana in her home. And workers at her dispensary, where she purchases medical marijuana, told Davis she cannot use it in public.
Federal housing authorities ultimately have discretion over whether to enforce the federal law banning marijuana. In some cases, housing authorities decided not to enforce marijuana laws.
While Minnesota lawmakers are expected to legalize recreational adult use of marijuana next year, that still would not change Davis’s situation. Only action at the federal level would do so.
In 2022, President Joe Biden ordered the federal government to review marijuana’s federal Schedule 1 status, which defines it as an illegal controlled substance with no medical properties. Reclassifying marijuana into a lower schedule status could make it easier for people like Davis to avoid bureaucratic tangles when it comes to using marijuana. But advocates say the easiest way to ensure reform on the federal level is for Congress to pass a law—which doesn’t appear likely for the foreseeable future.