The Department of Justice announced Tuesday, Sept. 20, federal criminal charges against 47 defendants, that include two Columbia Heights residents and one Fridley resident, for their alleged roles in a $250 million fraud scheme that exploited a federally-funded child nutrition program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today’s indictments describe an egregious plot to steal public funds meant to care for children in need in what amounts to the largest pandemic relief fraud scheme yet,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. “The defendants went to great lengths to exploit a program designed to feed underserved children in Minnesota amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, fraudulently diverting millions of dollars designated for the program for their own personal gain. These charges send the message that the FBI and our law enforcement partners remain vigilant and will vigorously pursue those who attempt to enrich themselves through fraudulent means.”
The 47 defendants are charged across six separate indictments and three criminal informations with charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, and bribery.
“These indictments ... underscore the Department of Justice’s sustained commitment to combating pandemic fraud and holding accountable those who perpetrate it,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “In partnership with agencies across government, the Justice Department will continue to bring to justice those who have exploited the pandemic for personal gain and stolen from American taxpayers.”
The six indictments include United States v. Aimee Marie Bock, that charges eight defendants; United States v. Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, that charges eight defendants; United States v. Qamar Ahmed Hassan, that charges eight defendants; United States v. Haji Osman Salad, that charges five defendants; United States v. Liban Yasin Alishire, that charges three defendants and United States v. Sharmake Jama, that charges six defendants.
Columbia Heights resident Abdulkadir Nur Salah, 36, and Fridley resident Abdikadir Ainanshe Mohamud, 30, are defendants in the United States v. Aimee Marie Bock indictment. Salah and Mohamud are among 14 defendants who have been federally charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery, federal programs bribery, conspiracy to commit money laundering and money laundering for the defendants alleged roles in the Federal Child Nutrition Program fraud scheme.
According to charging documents, in April 2020, Safari Restaurant, 3010 4th Ave. S., Minneapolis, enrolled in the Federal Child Nutrition Program under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future. The owners of Safari Restaurant and their reported co-conspirators allegedly opened additional sites throughout the state of Minnesota, as well as dozens of shell companies. Over the course of the fraud scheme, the defendants reportedly claimed to have served millions of meals. Based on their fraudulent claims, the defendants allegedly received more than $32 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds, which they’re alleged to have misappropriated for their own personal benefit, including expenditures such as vehicles, real estate and travel.
Abdulkadir Nur Salah was reportedly an owner and operator of Safari Restaurant, the site that allegedly received more than $16 million in fraudulent Federal Child Nutrition Program funds.
Abdikadir Ainanshe Mohamud ran the Stigma-Free Willmar site that allegedly claimed to have served approximately 1.6 million meals and reportedly received more than $4 million in fraudulent Federal Child Nutrition Program funds.
In addition, Abdullahe Nur Jesow, 62, of Columbia Heights, is one of eight defendants who have been charged in the United States v. Qamar Ahmed Hassan indictment with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and money laundering. Jesow reportedly ran a site called Academy For Youth Excellence that used S & S Catering as a vendor.
According to charging documents, in August 2020, S & S Catering Inc., enrolled in the Federal Child Nutrition Program under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future. The owner of S & S Catering and other co-conspirators allegedly opened sites across the Twin Cities and reportedly claimed to have served millions of meals. Based on their alleged fraudulent claims, the defendants reportedly received more than $18 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds, which they then allegedly misappropriated for their own personal benefit, including expenditures such as vehicles and real estate.
“This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minnesota. “These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they prioritized their own greed, stealing more than a quarter of a billion dollars in federal funds to purchase luxury cars, houses, jewelry, and coastal resort property abroad. I commend the work of the skilled investigators and prosecutors who unraveled the lies, deception, and mountains of false documentation to bring this complex case to light.”
As outlined in the charging documents, the defendants allegedly devised and carried out a massive scheme to defraud the Federal Child Nutrition Program. The defendants reportedly obtained, misappropriated and laundered millions of dollars in program funds that were intended as reimbursements for the cost of serving meals to children. The defendants allegedly exploited changes in the program intended to ensure underserved children received adequate nutrition during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than feed children, the defendants enriched themselves by fraudulently misappropriating millions of dollars in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds.
The Federal Child Nutrition Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is a federally-funded program designed to provide free meals to children in need. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administers the program throughout the nation by distributing federal funds to state governments.
In Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Education administers and oversees the Federal Child Nutrition Program. Meals funded by the Federal Child Nutrition Program are served by “sites.” Each site participating in the program must be sponsored by an authorized sponsoring organization. Sponsors must submit an application to MDE for each site. Sponsors are also responsible for monitoring each of their sites and preparing reimbursement claims for their sites. The USDA then provides MDE federal reimbursement funds on a per-meal basis. MDE provides those funds to the sponsoring agency who, in turn, pays the reimbursements to the sites under its sponsorship. The sponsoring agency retains 10-15% of the funds as an administrative fee.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA waived some of the standard requirements for participation in the Federal Child Nutrition Program. Among other things, the USDA allowed for-profit restaurants to participate in the program, as well as allowed for off-site food distribution to children outside of educational programs.
According to charging documents, Aimee Marie Bock, 41, of Apple Valley, was the founder and executive director of Feeding Our Future, a nonprofit organization that was a sponsor participating in the Federal Child Nutrition Program. The indictments charge Bock with allegedly overseeing a massive fraud scheme carried out by sites under Feeding Our Future’s sponsorship.
Feeding Our Future reportedly went from receiving and disbursing approximately $3.4 million in federal funds in 2019 to nearly $200 million in 2021.
As part of the charged scheme, Feeding Our Future employees allegedly recruited individuals and entities to open Federal Child Nutrition Program sites throughout the state of Minnesota. These sites, were allegedly created and operated by the defendants and others, fraudulently claimed to be serving meals to thousands of children a day within just days or weeks of being formed. The defendants allegedly created dozens of shell companies to enroll in the program as Federal Child Nutrition Program sites. The defendants also allegedly created shell companies to receive and launder the proceeds of their fraudulent scheme.
To carry out the scheme, the defendants also allegedly created and submitted false documentation. They reportedly submitted fraudulent meal count sheets purporting to document the number of children and meals served at each site. The defendants submitted false invoices purporting to document the purchase of food to be served to children at the sites, charging documents state.
The defendants also allegedly submitted fake attendance rosters purporting to list the names and ages of the children receiving meals at the sites each day.
These rosters were reportedly fabricated and created using fake names. For example, one roster was created using names from a website called “www.listofrandomnames.com.” Because the program only reimbursed for meals served to children, other defendants reportedly used an Excel formula to insert a random age between seven and 17 into the age column of the rosters.
Despite allegedly knowing the claims were fraudulent, Feeding Our Future reportedly submitted the fraudulent claims to MDE and then disbursed the fraudulently obtained Federal Child Nutrition Program funds to the individuals and entities involved in the scheme.
In exchange for sponsoring these sites’ fraudulent participation in the program, Feeding Our Future reportedly received more than $18 million in administrative fees to which it was not entitled. In addition to the administrative fees, Feeding Our Future employees allegedly solicited and received bribes and kickbacks from individuals and companies sponsored by Feeding Our Future.
Many of these kickbacks were paid in cash or disguised as “consulting fees” paid to shell companies created by Feeding Our Future employees to make them appear legitimate.
When MDE attempted to perform necessary oversight regarding the number of sites and amount of claims being submitted, Bock and Feeding Our Future allegedly gave false assurances that they were monitoring the sites under its sponsorship and that the sites were serving the meals as claimed.
When MDE employees pressed Bock for clarification, Bock reportedly accused MDE of discrimination and unfairly scrutinizing Feeding Our Future’s sites. When MDE denied Feeding Our Future site applications, Bock and Feeding Our Future filed a lawsuit accusing MDE of denying the site applications due to alleged discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
In total, Feeding Our Future opened more than 250 sites throughout the state of Minnesota and allegedly obtained and disbursed more than $240 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds fraudulently.
The defendants used the proceeds of their fraudulent scheme to purchase luxury vehicles, residential and commercial real estate in Minnesota as well as property in Ohio and Kentucky, real estate in Kenya and Turkey, and to fund international travel.
Bock has been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery and federal programs bribery.
“Exploiting a government program intended to feed children at the time of a national crisis is the epitome of greed,” said Special Agent in Charge Justin Campbell of the IRS Criminal Investigation, Chicago Field Office. “As alleged, the defendants charged in this case chose to enrich themselves at the expense of children. Instead of feeding the future, they chose to steal from the future. IRS – Criminal Investigation is pleased to join our law enforcement partners to hold these defendants accountable.”