Minnesota is at the center of the largest pandemic fraud case in the nation, which federal authorities expect will grow even larger as the investigation continues.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced charges Tuesday against 47 people believed to be connected to the $250 million scheme to defraud the Federal Child Nutrition Program. The 48th suspect was charged Tuesday evening, according to KARE 11.
The suspects are accused of participating in a massive scheme to pocket federal aid intended to provide meals to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal prosecutors allege Aimee Bock, the former executive director of the Feeding Our Future nonprofit, had a role in orchestrating the scheme and received kickbacks.
In a statement Wednesday, Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said the indictments describe "an egregious plot to steal public funds meant to care for children in need."
"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," Wray stated.
During a press conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger said the case represents the largest pandemic fraud case in the country.
"This $250 million is the floor — our investigation continues," he said, adding the suspects worked at a "break-neck speed" to steal the money and spend it for themselves.
Federal prosecutors allege 125 million meals were falsely claimed to have been served in Minnesota.
"It quickly became the ultimate 'get rich' scheme," Luger said.
Sharmarke Issa, 40, of Edina, and Abdulkadir Salah, 36, of Columbia Heights, were among those with ties to local government to be indicted Tuesday.
Salah, the owner of Safari Restaurant, is a former senior aide to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
Frey learned about the allegations against Salah when the Sahan Journal inquired about the investigation in February, a spokesperson for the mayor told the nonprofit newsroom. Salah's departure from his job as Frey's senior policy aide was announced the same day.
Issa, who served as chair of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, resigned in February after the investigation came to light. Frey appointed Issa to the role in 2019, the Sahan Journal reports.
Salah is 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.
Issa is charged with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and money laundering.
Both the civil and criminal investigations into the alleged scheme are ongoing and additional charges could be brought.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Tuesday said he's continuing to watch over the dissolution of Feeding Our Future, which is proceeding under court supervision after he requested the court's oversight.
The AG office's ongoing civil investigation into the matter aims to determine whether Feeding Our Future violated nonprofit and charity laws.
"I will hold bad actors accountable everywhere, no matter who they are or how well connected they may be," Ellison said Tuesday, calling the scope of the fraud allegations "breathtaking and immoral."
Additionally, the Minnesota Department of Education on Wednesday filed a claim seeking to recover more than $538,000 spent on defending the agency against a discrimination lawsuit brought by Aimee Bock, the former executive director of Feeding Our Future.
"That lawsuit was based on lies and was intended to intimidate MDE and distract from Feeding Our Future’s ongoing fraud,” Education Commissioner Dr. Heather Mueller said Wednesday. “MDE was forced to expend resources to defend our agency and staff from this baseless sham lawsuit."
The claim aims to return the value of those resources to Minnesota taxpayers.
Learn more about the allegations here.