Cultural center in Bloomington set to open, despite ties to Feeding Our Future scandal

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that a high-profile events center project is moving ahead in Bloomington, despite the indictment of the project’s CEO in the Feeding Our Future scandal.

Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff is defendant No. 21 (of 49) indicted last month by the Department of Justice in the case. His name is listed in the second indictment, as part of the Empire Cuisine/ThinkTechAct/Mind Foundry group. The group is accused of fraud totaling more than $40 million.

Shariff and his Afrique cultural center project has received some coverage in local media. The MSP Business Journal reported back in January,

Afrique Hospitality has raised around $3 million from community members to develop the site. It’s seeking a $1.4 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development [DEED] to create workforce training space.

It does not appear that Afrique was successful in obtaining a DEED grant. The Business Journal reported last month that the center was still planning to open yet this fall. Shariff has pleaded not guilty.

In the press release issued along with the indictment, the Department of Justice describes Afrique Hospitality group as “a shell company.” The Business Journal reports,

[An attorney for Shariff] said in an email that Afrique is “absolutely not a shell company but is instead a real brick and mortar cultural campus that has been years in the planning, development and building stages.”

In the indictment, the FBI first mentions Shariff on page 9, paragraph 27, as submitting invoices claiming to feed up to 3,600 children at a site in Bloomington. The story picks up again in paragraph 83 of the indictment, and describes Shariff’s alleged involvement with additional sites in Medford and Waseca. The indictment covers the Afrique Hospitality group beginning on paragraph 127.

Paragraph 139 of the indictment claims that Shariff paid a $250,000 bribe to an employee of Feeding Our Future identified only with the initials of “I.M.”

Paragraph 161 of the indictment claims that Shariff used his share of the fraud’s proceeds “to build an event center space in Bloomington.”

The Star Tribune reports on additional details of the project’s progress,

Glen Markegard, Bloomington’s planning manager, said Afrique received a conditional-use permit from the city on Jan. 24. It has since been issued multiple permits for electrical and plumbing, he said.

The city created “cultural center” as a new land-use classification in 2021 in anticipation of Afrique, Markegard said, and the center meets several city goals.

The city wants to encourage workforce development, he said, which the center will do. Bloomington is also “very interested in being a welcoming community” to immigrant and multicultural groups, he said, which fits with Afrique’s mission.

According to records on file at the MN Department of Education, Afrique Hospitality Group was listed as a food vendor for a free-food distribution site in Bloomington under the Summer Food Service Program. The site is listed under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future and the location is described as Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center–ThinkTechAct. The address listed is the same one for the mosque located on Park Avenue.

However, it is not clear what relationship the mosque has to the listed food site, if any. As this case has progressed, it turns out that more than a few properties were listed as large food distribution sites under Feeding Our Future without the property owners even being aware.

The site was listed as serving bundled meals on Saturdays, with a maximum capacity of 4,000 children per week.

According to records on file at the MN Secretary of State’s office, Afrique Hospitality Group LLC was incorporated in January 2021 and its business address is listed on American Boulevard in Bloomington.

Another company, Afrique Holdings LLC, was incorporated in June of this year at that same address.

KARE 11’s Lou Raguse lists Shariff as a political donor to both Jeremiah Ellison and to a political candidate in Washington State, both listing the same employer for Shariff. Records on file with campaign finance authorities in Washington State list an address on 33rd Avenue in Bloomington for this Mukhtar Shariff.

The Minnesota Secretary of State lists a Mukhtar Shariff of Bloomington as creating seven new companies in the past two years, either listed at the 33rd Avenue address or the American Boulevard address.