See more of the story

Feeding Our Future quickly became known not as a nonprofit helping feed kids in need, but as a "booming" bank where people could rake in millions of dollars in federal money for submitting fake invoices, a former employee testified Wednesday.

Hadith Ahmed, who was the "right-hand man" to Feeding Our Future leader Aimee Bock, testified in the first trial in the case that he and many other people tied to the organization knowingly participated in the massive fraud scheme, taking kickbacks from one another to "get rich" off federal reimbursements for meals for low-income kids.

"There was money everywhere," he said. "Feeding Our Future was the place to go."

Ahmed is the first Feeding Our Future insider to testify in the trial, revealing how the fraud ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahmed, who was among the first people in the case to plead guilty, also said on the witness stand that he accepted kickbacks — including from some of the seven defendants on trial — to approve fake invoices and inflated meal-count forms, bringing millions of dollars in federal reimbursements.

"It was crazy. It was booming," Ahmed said. "Everyone wanted to get involved with Feeding Our Future."

Feeding Our Future, a St. Anthony nonprofit, was a "sponsor," meaning it administered paperwork for hundreds of meal distribution sites, including some of the sites run by the seven defendants.

Since the FBI raided Feeding Our Future offices more than two years ago, 70 people have been charged or indicted in what prosecutors say is one of the largest pandemic-related fraud schemes in the country, totaling more than $250 million. So far, 18 people have pleaded guilty.

The six men and one woman on trial have ties to Empire Cuisine & Market in Shakopee, which was sponsored by Feeding Our Future, and a St. Paul nonprofit called Partners in Nutrition. Defendants Said Shafii Farah, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur have been charged with wire fraud, money laundering and other crimes.

They collectively received more than $40 million for submitting claims for more than 18 million meals.

Bock has pleaded not guilty to charges and denied any wrongdoing.

Ahmed was a child-care center director in Eden Prairie before the pandemic. It was there that he first learned about the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded programs at the center of the case. The programs reimburse day cares, nonprofits and schools for feeding low-income kids after school and during the summer.

During the pandemic, the USDA approved waivers that relaxed oversight and rules to get more food to children during the pandemic while limiting the spread of the virus. Prosecutors have argued that made the programs vulnerable to abuse. Defense attorneys have said those relaxed rules, such as allowing for-profit restaurants to participate and give out seven days' worth of meals at once, allowed their clients to rapidly escalate numbers of meals and earn a fair profit.

Defense attorneys showed photos and a video earlier this week of their clients distributing food as part of their proof their clients served real food.

Employee details get-rich scheme

Ahmed's child care center was sponsored by Partners in Nutrition, which Bock had started with a colleague. When the pandemic began in early 2020 and kids stayed home, Ahmed had no income and took a job that fall at Feeding Our Future, which Bock started in 2018 after she was fired from Partners in Nutrition.

Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Jacobs, Ahmed said he was in charge of monitoring food distribution sites to ensure they were following the rules.

But there were no checks or balances at Feeding Our Future, he said, because employees like him weren't reviewing invoices or checking in person to see if newly created sites were operating. Instead, he said, they just accepted kickbacks from the food sites and looked the other way.

"People were submitting whatever they wanted," he testified. "We were not visiting sites. ... We were all taking kickbacks at that time."

Ahmed and Abdikerm Eidleh, a friend and Feeding Our Future employee, wanted to get in on the millions of dollars funneling in, so he said they set up a business in fall 2020 called Southwest Metro Youth. They leased a small office in Eden Prairie to make it look legitimate, Ahmed testified.

"I wanted to get rich," Ahmed said.

Eidleh has also been charged in the scheme, but FBI agents have said he fled to Somalia.

At first, they gave out about 150 hot meals, but that was hard to do, Ahmed said, so they switched to giving out groceries. Bank records showed they bought groceries from Sam's Club, but not anywhere close to the amount of food that they were claiming to dole out, Ahmed testified. The site quickly grew to claim it was distributing 2,500 meals a day in early 2021, bringing in nearly $200,000 a month.

No site supervisors from Feeding Our Future visited the Eden Prairie site to check if food was given out because Ahmed was Bock's "right-hand man." He dealt with other food sites directly so she could concentrate on the lawsuit Feeding Our Future had filed against the Minnesota Department of Education, he said.

The department administers the meal programs and had delayed processing meal site applications. The agency had become suspicious about the "inexplicable growth" of Feeding Our Future in 2020.

Eidleh created two companies to be vendors for Southwest Metro Youth, but they were shell companies to divert money from the scheme and make it look like they were buying food, Ahmed testified.

Hadith Yusuf Ahmed walks out of the Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse after his hearing Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022 in Minneapolis.   ]

Hadith Yusuf Ahmed walks out of the Diana E. Murphy U.S. Courthouse after his hearing Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022 in Minneapolis. ] ALEX KORMANN •

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

Ahmed also started his own consulting company to conceal kickbacks he was receiving from other food sites so they could get the "VIP treatment," he testified, making sure that site supervisors stayed away and their claims got paid quickly. For instance, Jacobs showed the jury a check for $127,000 for "consulting" from a defendant of a Bloomington nonprofit.

Ahmed testified it was "easy money," and he saw people connected to the food sites bragging on social media about the millions of dollars they were getting, buying fancy cars and houses. He described how Bock once handed him a plastic bag of $5,000 in cash from another employee. Ahmed testified that Bock knew the children's names on attendance rosters were fake because they were the same at two different sites.

The defendants on trial were working with Partners in Nutrition, which Feeding Our Future had a "grudge" against, Ahmed said, and wanted to oversee more of their sites to increase their money. Ahmed received several checks that he said were kickbacks to help the defendants transfer their sites to Feeding Our Future. For instance, Jacobs showed the jury a $10,000 check from Empire Cuisine & Market to Ahmed, a $12,000 check from Said Farah and a $65,000 check from Said Farah's vending company — all for "consulting" or a "loan."

Ahmed said he was later fired by Bock after a Bloomington nonprofit complained that he wasn't processing meal claims. He said Bock and her lawyer threatened him, saying that if he went to the government, "they will go after me" and report his kickbacks.

When the FBI search warrants were unsealed in January 2022, publicly revealing the massive investigation, Ahmed said he got scared and backdated consulting invoices to when he received kickbacks from Said Farah's company. He said he met with Said Farah, who was concerned he would tell the truth.

"We were all scared," Ahmed added.

Ahmed said he made $2 million off the fraud scheme in less than a year and used the money to buy a house in Savage and properties in Kenya, with the help of Abdiaziz Farah. As part of Ahmed's plea agreement in October 2022, he agreed to forfeit more than half a million dollars seized from bank accounts in his name and pay $1.3 million in restitution.

Under brief cross-examination Wednesday from defense attorney Steve Schleicher, who represents Said Farah, Schleicher questioned if Ahmed ever contacted the FBI when he first suspected fraud or after the FBI investigation was revealed. He said no, agreeing that he only talked to federal agents when they contacted him in June 2022. But he said he contacted the Education Department at the end of 2020 to tell them to look into what's happening at Feeding Our Future before deciding to partake in the scheme himself, he said.

Ahmed's sentence could span about four to five years in prison. When asked by Jacobs if he could get a break for testifying, he said yes, but he doesn't know how much of a reduced sentence he could get for cooperating.

He told Jacobs he regretted what he did and was ashamed of it, and was testifying "to tell the truth" because the "paper trail the government found was clear that I stole money from the government."