Feed Our Future founder among 48 charged in $250 million federal food aid fraud scheme

The head of the Feed Our Future nonprofit and 47 others were indicted Tuesday in what federal prosecutors say is a “massive scheme” to defraud the government of more than $250 million to fight the COVID-19 pandemic Feed children in need.

In a news conference, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lugar described the scheme as the largest pandemic fraud in the country, with the charges amounting to one of the largest ever federal fraud in Minnesota.

“These 47 defendants were involved in a shameless scheme of staggering scale,” Lugar said hours before charges against another defendant were unearthed. “Their goal is to make as much money for themselves as possible while lying about feeding their kids during the pandemic.”

The defendants are charged with wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and bribery. The indictment alleges that the conspirators spent tens of thousands of dollars to join the criminal enterprise and later tried to cover their tracks by submitting false invoices and registration forms containing fake names pulled from sites such as www.listofrandomnames.com.

Lugar described the indictment, which was made public on Tuesday, as the “first charges” in the ongoing investigation. Several defendants were arrested on Tuesday, but Lugar said some had left the country.

Prosecutors say the scheme was led by Feeding Our Future executive director Aimee Bock, who they allege personally recruited numerous co-conspirators and knowingly filed more than 125 million false meal claims.

Bock appeared in court Tuesday afternoon and pleaded not guilty. She was released conditionally. She and her attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, did not respond to requests for comment.

The co-conspirators are accused of using tens of millions of dollars to finance international travel, luxury car purchases and home purchases 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, including a sweeping FBI search warrant operation in January that spilled into the public eye.

According to the allegations, the purported program takes advantage of changes to the federal child nutrition program designed to ensure children in need receive adequate nutrition during the pandemic.

As part of the change, the USDA allowed for-profit restaurants to participate in the federal food assistance program. The regulator is also allowing parents to bring meals home instead of requiring children to eat on-site. Prosecutors said the rule changes made it harder to oversee meal plans, making them vulnerable to fraud and abuse.

After becoming an approved sponsor in 2018, Feeding Our Future battled state regulators over its explosive growth plans, filing a lawsuit that eventually forced the department to approve dozens of sites that had been stalled for months in the approval process.

Lugar said the conspiracy began in March 2020, early in the pandemic, when the conspirators saw an opportunity to deceive the government.

According to the allegations, Bock and other company employees solicited and received bribes from individuals and companies seeking to join the fast-growing criminal enterprise as part of a “pay to play” scheme.

The allegations allege that many of the bribes were paid directly to Abdikerm Abdelahi Eidleh, an employee who feeds our future, who is accused of receiving kickbacks ranging from $49,000 to $225,000. Eidleh could not be reached for comment, and court records show he does not yet have a lawyer.

Eidleh is accused of depositing more than $5 million in kickbacks, bribes and other fraudulent proceeds into bank accounts opened in the name of his shell company.

The indictment alleges that many of the kickbacks were paid in cash or disguised as “consulting fees” to shell companies created by Feeding Our Future employees to obscure the true nature of the payments and make them appear legitimate.

On a fee basis, Bock benefits from an expanding fee charged by Feeding Our Future, which typically retains 10% to 15% of all reimbursements for administrative purposes. In 2021, when Feeding Our Future collected nearly $200 million in reimbursements, its share was $18 million, according to the allegations.

Feeding Our Future also opened its own federal food assistance sites in Minneapolis and Burnsville, the indictment alleges, which allegedly lied about feeding thousands of children a day, seven days a week.

In total, Burke’s nonprofit sponsored more than 200 federal food program websites in Minnesota, according to the allegations.

“The sites fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children every day in the days or weeks after their inception, despite having very few, if any, employees and barely serving that many meals,” the indictment reads. experience.”

Bock told the Star Tribune earlier this year that she never stole money and never saw evidence of fraud in a subcontractor.

The scheme was so lucrative that some conspirators were able to rent out restaurants at exorbitant prices just to create more places to eat, the allegation said. In Wilmar, for example, conspirators paid more than $570,000 to rent the Faafan restaurant for 11 months, nearly triple the restaurant’s annual sales before the pandemic. According to the allegations, the site received more than $4 million in reimbursements, half of which went to co-conspirators.

“No one is legally involved in this project and they’re going to imagine that they can … make millions,” Lugar said. “It’s impossible.”

Prosecutors said the co-conspirators were sloppy in concealing their crimes by submitting fake attendance rosters filled with hundreds of fictitious names that local schools could not verify. Usually only 1-2% of names appear legitimate, Luger said.

In some cases, co-conspirators consulted websites to find names. But investigators found no fluctuation in the age of students listed on the roster, noting that some children went from 8 to 12 within a few months.

The dining establishments allegedly submitted false invoices purporting to document the food they purchased. The indictment alleges that some people did buy and serve small amounts of food, but inflated the quantities.

The indictment against Bok also includes charges against three men – Salim Ahmed Saeed, Abdul Qadir Noor Salah and Abd Rahman Mohammad Ahmed – They run Safari restaurant in Minneapolis. Prosecutors said they claimed to have served 3.9 million meals to children between April 2020 and November 2021, backed by fake attendance rosters. Salah and Ahmed could not be reached for comment.

According to the allegations, Safari received more than $16 million in federal funds for claiming they were feeding children in need. The allegation states that prior to the pandemic, the restaurant did not make more than $600,000 in annual sales.

The charges allege that Saeed and Salah transferred most of the $16 million to co-conspirators through shell companies used for money laundering. The owners of Safari also paid Bock and Eidleh more than $350,000 in bribes and kickbacks for sponsorships, the allegations allege.

Minnesota Department of Education [MDE] Officials began questioning Bock about the sudden boom in sites her organization sponsored in 2020. Feeding Our Future sued the state, alleging that the education department discriminated against the nonprofit for working with minorities after it stopped paying the nonprofit in early 2021. The FBI investigation into Feeding Our Future began in May 2021 after state education officials provided the bureau with information.

Although some state lawmakers have accused MDE of not taking more aggressive action on its fraud suspicions, Luger declined to assess the department’s oversight.

“That’s not what I’m going to say,” Lugar said. “We are pleased with the full cooperation we have received from MDE throughout the investigation.”

The three board members of Feeding Our Future voted to dissolve the group in February, in part because its bank accounts had been frozen as part of a federal investigation.

According to court documents, the government seized more than $3.5 million from Feeding Our Future bank accounts and more than $185,000 in Bock’s personal bank accounts. Authorities also took $13,462 in cash and a 2013 Porsche Panamera during Jan. 1. Execute 20 search warrants at Boke’s home.

Lugar said the government has so far seized $50 million in property related to the scheme, including 60 bank accounts, 45 pieces of real property, 14 cars, jewelry and other items.

At least one defendant – Fahd Noor – is accused of fleeing the United States shortly after the FBI raid in January. Nur has charged four others with a $25 million fraud scheme in one indictment. Nur’s The Produce LLC is sponsored by Feeding Our Future and has received more than $11 million in federal funding to serve as a supplier and food supplier to participating venues. Noor could not be reached for comment.

Prosecutors said he made no major food-related purchases between about March 2021 and the start of his food business in September of that year, but he claimed to have received $3.5 million for food provided through the program. Days before registering the company in Minnesota, Nur submitted fraudulent invoices to Feeding Our Future claiming to have provided another co-defendant with 3,635 gallons of milk and more than 7,000 packed lunches, the indictment alleges.

Most defendants do not yet have a lawyer.

Other charges include:

• Abdiaziz Shafii Farah and Mohamed Jama Ismail, co-owners of Empire Cuisine and Market LLC in Shakopee, among others, have opened more than 30 federal food assistance sites across the state. The two are part of an eight-person indictment charged with a $40 million fraud scheme. Farah’s lawyer Andrew Birrell said in a statement on Tuesday: “Since the execution of the search warrant in January, we have been conducting our own parallel investigation. We are delighted that the matter has now been brought to court and that Mr. Farah can be publicly introduced. The story of a federal jury. Not a simple indictment, the product of a government secretly making ex parte statements and reaching false conclusions. Ismail could not be reached for comment.

• Liban Yasin Alishire, President and Owner of Community Enhancement Services Inc., JigJiga Business Center in Minneapolis. Alishire helps run Lake Street Kitchen LLC with Khadar Jigre Adan and Ahmed Yasin Ali. Ali Hill could not be reached for comment.

• 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. Hassan pleaded not guilty when he appeared in court on Tuesday. Her attorney could not be reached for comment.

• Sharmake Jama and Ayan Jama, principals of Brava Restaurant & Café LLC in Rochester. They are accused in the six-person indictment of running a $5.6 million scheme. They could not be reached for comment.

• Haji Osman Salad, who operates Haji’s Kitchen LLC in Brooklyn Park. He and four others were charged with a $25 million fraud conspiracy. His attorney could not be reached on Tuesday. Salad could not be reached for comment.

Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report.

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