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

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The director of the nonprofit Feeding Our Future and 47 others were indicted Tuesday in what federal prosecutors described as a “mega scheme” to defraud the government of more than $250 million aimed at feeding children in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a press conference, US Attorney General Andrew Luger called the scheme the largest epidemic fraud in the country, and the charges reach one of the largest federal fraud cases ever filed in Minnesota.

“These 47 defendants engaged in a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” Luger said, hours before charges were filed against another defendant. “Their goal was to make as much money as possible for themselves while falsely claiming to feed children during the pandemic.”

The defendants were charged with fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and bribery. The indictments allege that the conspirators paid tens of thousands of dollars to join the criminal enterprise, and later attempted to hide their tracks by submitting false invoices and registration forms with fake names pulled from places like www.listofrandomnames.com.

Luger described the wave of indictments unsealed on Tuesday as “the first set of charges” in the ongoing investigation. Several defendants were arrested on Tuesday, but Luger said some have left the country.

Prosecutors allege that the leader of the scheme is Amy Bock, CEO of Feeding Our Future, whom they personally accuse of recruiting multiple conspirators and making more than 125 million false claims about the meal.

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

The conspirators face charges of using tens of millions of dollars to finance international travel, purchase luxury cars and buy homes in Minnesota, Ohio, Kentucky and along the coasts of Kenya and Turkey.

Tuesday’s arrests are the latest high-profile chapter in a federal investigation that began more than a year ago and involved a massive FBI search in January that spilled into the public eye.

According to the accusations, the alleged scheme took advantage of changes to the federal child nutrition program that were aimed at making sure children in need were getting adequate nutrition amid the pandemic.

As part of the changes, the USDA has allowed for-profit restaurants to participate in the federal food aid program. Organizers also allow parents to bring meals home rather than requiring children to eat them on site. Prosecutors said the rule changes made the meal program difficult to oversee, leaving it vulnerable to fraud and abuse.

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

Luger said the plot began in March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, when the conspirators saw an opportunity to defraud the government.

As part of the “pay-to-play” scheme, Bock and other company employees solicited and received bribes from people and companies seeking to join the rapidly growing criminal enterprise, according to the charges.

The charges say that many of the bribes were paid directly to Abdelkarim Abdellahi Idala, a “Feeding Our Future” employee who was accused of receiving bribes ranging from $49,000 to $225,000. Eid could not be reached for comment and court records indicate that he does not yet have a lawyer.

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

Many of the commissions were paid in cash or disguised as “advising fees” paid to shell companies set up by Feeding Our Future employees to disguise the true nature of the payments and make them appear legitimate, the indictment alleges.

Bock took advantage of the increased fees collected by Feeding Our Future, which typically held 10 to 15% of all reimbursement payments for administrative purposes, according to the fee. In 2021, when Feeding Our Future collected nearly $200 million in refunds, its share of the money was $18 million, the fees say.

The indictment says Feeding Our Future has also opened its own federal food aid sites in Minneapolis and Burnsville that allegedly provide meals to thousands of children daily, seven days a week.

In all, the nonprofit Bock has sponsored more than 200 Federal Food Program sites across Minnesota, according to the fee.

“The sites fraudulently claimed to provide meals to thousands of children daily within just days or weeks of being formed, despite having little, if any, staff, and little or no experience in serving that volume of meals,” the indictment read.

Bock told the Star Tribune earlier this year that she has never stolen money or seen evidence of fraud among its subcontractors.

The scheme was so profitable that some of the conspirators were able to rent out restaurants at exorbitant prices only to create additional meal sites, according to the fee. In Wilmar, for example, the conspirators paid more than $570,000 to rent a Vavan restaurant for 11 months, nearly three times the restaurant’s annual sales before the pandemic. The site received more than $4 million in damages, half of which was the conspirators, according to the charges.

“No one legitimately involved in this program would imagine that they could … make millions of dollars,” Luger said. “It is not possible.”

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Prosecutors said the conspirators did a negligent act to conceal their crimes, submitting fake attendance lists filled with hundreds of made-up names that local schools could not verify. Usually only 1-2% of the names appear to be legitimate, Luger said.

In some cases, the conspirators consulted websites to find the names. But investigators found impossible fluctuations in the ages of the students on the lists, noting that some children went from 8 to 12 years old in a matter of months.

The meal sites allegedly submitted fake invoices claiming to document their food purchases. The indictment alleged that some bought and served small amounts of food, but exaggerated the numbers.

The indictment against Bock also includes charges against three men — Salem Ahmed Saeed, Abdelkader Nour Salah and Abdelrahman Mahmoud Ahmed — who run a safari restaurant in Minneapolis. Prosecutors claimed they provided 3.9 million meals to children between April 2020 and November 2021, backed by fake attendance lists. Saeed, Salah and Ahmed could not be reached for comment.

According to the charges, Safari received more than $16 million in federal funds based on allegations that they were feeding children in need. The fees indicated that the restaurant did not generate more than $600,000 in annual sales before the pandemic.

According to the accusations, Saeed and Salah sent much of the $16 million to the conspirators via shell companies used to launder proceeds. The charges also alleged that Safari ownership paid more than $350,000 in bribes and kickbacks to Bock and Eidleh for sponsorship.

Minnesota Department of Education [MDE] Officials began questioning Bock about the sudden surge in sites her organization sponsored in 2020. Feeding Our Future sued the state alleging that the Department of Education was discriminating against a nonprofit working with ethnic minorities after the department halted payments to the nonprofit by Early 2021. The FBI’s investigation into Feeding Our Future began in May 2021, after state education officials submitted information to the bureau.

Although some state lawmakers have faulted MDE for not acting more aggressively toward its suspicions of fraud, Luger declined to assess the department’s oversight.

“That’s not for me to say,” Luger said. “We are pleased with the comprehensive cooperation we received from the Ministry of Education and Development during this investigation.”

Feeding Our Future board members voted in February to dissolve the organization in part because its bank accounts were frozen as part of a federal investigation.

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

So far, Luger said, the government has seized $50 million in property linked to the scheme, including 60 bank accounts, 45 parcels of real estate, 14 vehicles, jewelry and other items.

At least one defendant – Fahd Noor – is accused of fleeing the United States shortly after the FBI raids in January. Nour is accused along with four others in one indictment alleging a $25 million fraud scheme. Nur’s The Produce LLC is sponsored by Feeding Our Future and has taken over $11 million in federal funds as a seller and supplier of food to participating locations in the program. Nour could not be reached for comment.

Prosecutors say he made no food-related purchases between the start of food operations from March 2021 through September of that year, but received $3.5 million for food he claimed he provided through the program. Days before the company was registered in Minnesota, Noor submitted false invoices to Feeding Our Future claiming that she provided 3,635 gallons of milk and more than 7,000 packed lunches to another plaintiff, according to the indictment.

Most defendants do not yet have a lawyer.

Other fees charged include:

• Abdulaziz Shafei Farah and Muhammad Jumaa Ismail, co-owners of Empire Cuisine and Market LLC in Shakopee, and with others, opened more than 30 federal food aid locations across the state. The two are part of an eight-person indictment alleging a $40 million fraud scheme. “We have conducted our own parallel investigation since the search warrants were executed in January. We are grateful that the matter is now before the court and there can be a public presentation of Mr. Farah’s side of the story to a jury,” Andrew Pearl, Farah’s attorney, said in a statement on Tuesday. federal. rather than just an indictment that resulted from a secret one-sided presentation by the government that came to wrong conclusions.” Ismail could not be reached for comment.

• Liban Yassin Alishir, President and Owner, Community Enhancement Services Inc. located in the Jijiga Business Center in Minneapolis. Aleshire helped run Lake Street Kitchen LLC with Khidir Jeker Adan and Ahmed Yasin Ali. Aliceshire 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 in his appearance in court on Tuesday. Her attorney could not be reached for comment.

• Sharmak Jama and Ayan Jama, who were directors of Brava LLC Restaurant and Cafe in Rochester. They are accused in a six-person indictment of running the $5.6 million scheme. They cannot be reached for comment.

• Haji Osman Salad, who runs Haji’s Kitchen in Brooklyn Park. He and four others are accused of carrying out a $25 million fraud conspiracy. Unable to reach his lawyer Tuesday. No authority could be reached for comment.

Author Kelly Smith contributed to this report.

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