Even Feeding Our Future tried to warn state officials about fraud

In a scene out of a Hollywood movie, an unmarked package arrived at the offices of Center of the American Experiment without a return address and a St. Paul postmark. Inside were three dozen pieces of paper containing emails and correspondence apparently related to the Feeding Our Future (FOF) scandal.

The documents show that the Minnesota Department of Education was alerted to another possible fraud in the free food program as early as August 2021. Ironically, these fraud warnings came from none other than Aimee Bock, the now-indicted president of Feeding Our Future, about a feeding site in her own program, who was also doing business with a rival program.

Putting aside for a moment the source, MDE continually ignored the warnings of fraud, instructed FOF to handle the problem themselves and at one point wrote, “MDE takes no position if fraud has taken place.” (PDF, p. 23) In fact, MDE ignored the fraud warnings and paid the alleged fraudulent organization a total of $2.7 million.

The attorney assigned to MDE from the Attorney General’s office is also part of the back and forth between MDE and FOF regarding possible fraud at one of its locations.

The pages in the envelope can be read here:

The documents portray one side of a dispute between FOF and one of their own would-be free-food distribution nonprofits.

That nonprofit, House of Refuge Outreach, is based in St Paul and has not been accused of any wrongdoing and is not under investigation by any agency. Neither the nonprofit, nor any of its employees have appeared in any FBI search warrants or Federal indictments in the case.

As discussed in this post, House of Refuge operated a free-food distribution site under Feeding Our Future’s rival nonprofit Partners in Nutrition.

In 2021 it applied to operate a second effort through Feeding Our Future, but got caught up in the ongoing legal dispute between Feeding Our Future and the state Department of Education (MDE).

Back in April 2021, Feeding Our Future and its attorney were going to bat for the organization in a crucial hearing before a state judge.

Thanks to the timely intervention of State Senator Sandy Pappas, House of Refuge was the first of the 144 held-up applicants under Feeding Our Future to be approved in mid-2021. (The others would later receive approval).

By August 2021, the view inside Feeding Our Future had turned. Most of the documents in the linked PDF relate to a draft letter from Feeding Our Future to House of Refuge, terminating the participation of the latter nonprofit from the free-food program.

There are a number of emails that went between Feeding Our Future, its attorney, MDE, and MDE’s attorney in the Attorney General’s (AG) office. Both MDE and the AG repeatedly declined to get involved in the dispute between Feeding Our Future and its member nonprofit.

In the various versions of the draft termination letter, Feeding Our Future accuses House of Refuge of fraud by claiming to have served an excessive number of meals. None of the papers included in the envelope provide evidence of any fraud, nor is any response from House of Refuge included, despite numerous references to such correspondence. The documents presented are entirely one-sided.

Several references are made in these documents to Hanna Marekegn, owner of Brava Cafe of Minneapolis and Defendant No. 47 in the case. She pled guilty to one count and pledged her cooperation in the case. (Note: there are many different variations in the spelling of her name.) Brava Cafe was the would-be food vendor to House of Refuge’s operation and had previously served as a food vendor to other Feeding Our Future locations.

A Minneapolis Star Tribune article published last month includes quotes from an interview the paper conducted with Marekegn in February. In that interview, Marekegn accuses a Feeding Our Future employee of seeking a kickback in exchange for participating in the program:

Tears welled in Hanna Marekegn’s eyes last winter as she said her catering business had crumbled financially because she refused to give a $150,000 kickback to Feeding Our Future, the nonprofit that she contends demanded the money in return for facilitating federal reimbursements for feeding needy children.

“I got terminated because I was asked to give a kickback and I refused to give the kickback,” Marekegn said in a February interview with the Star Tribune, adding that she couldn’t document it because it was a verbal request.

Naturally, the correspondence provided to American Experiment makes no reference to this request. Instead, it accuses Marekegn of paying bribes to House of Refuge, without providing any evidence. Furthermore, Feeding Our Future claims that Marekegn owes the nonprofit $130,000, without providing any documentation.

Taken together, the documents provided to American Experiment in the unmarked envelope seek to portray Feeding Our Future as the unlikely hero of the scandal, zealously fighting against fraud and corruption in the free-food program to the apparent indifference of MDE and the Attorney General.

The first document in the packet is dated August 30, 2021. The yellow highlighting in the documents was on the copies that we received. Redactions in black and white were done by us to protect personal phone numbers and unrelated persons.

In reference to the alleged over-billing, Feeding Our Future claims, “This is the first time Feeding Our Future has encountered such a situation” (PDF, p. 1). Feeding Our Future would make similar such statements throughout these documents.

Feeding Our Future raises questions about a food vendor for their rival organization (Partners), U.S. Halal Foods (PDF, p. 7). This entity was created by indicted figure No. 31 in the case. At that point in time, neither the company nor the person had been named in any FBI search warrants. We can find no evidence that MDE ever investigated this operation.

Likewise, in a letter copied to MDE, Feeding Our Future appears to make reference to Defendant No. 33. At that time, that person’s name had not appeared in any FBI search warrants in the case (PDF, p. 36).

In the end, House of Refuge did not receive any money through Feeding Our Future. However, it did receive $2.7 million through an unrelated effort under the sponsorship of Partners in Nutrition. MDE is refusing to pay invoices from House of Refuge dated November of 2021 and later. MDE’s reasons are as follows,

It’s understandable why MDE refused to pay in November and December 2021 given the conviction of the nonprofit’s CEO. But why did they pay invoices from August, September, and October? In the end, $2.7 million went to a nonprofit that could not pass the background check.

MDE received specific allegations of fraud against several then-current program participants. Moreover, these accused participants would not have been subject to any Federal restrictions related to the Feeding Our Future case. Yet we can find no evidence that MDE moved to shut these operators down until after the FBI raids of January 20.