More Details Tying Elected Officials to the $250 Million Federal Food Aid Scandal – But Will They Be Protected From Investigation?

Minneapolis, MN – Minneapolis City Council Member Jamal Osman’s wife owned and operated a food site tied to the massive food for children scandal. Osman has been a key ally at city hall to Mayor Jacob Frey who has recently come under fire after three of his appointees were federally indicted in the massive scheme.

This report runs down the close connections to implicated and linked figures around the sprawling quarter-billion dollar embezzlement scandal — due to the close-knit nature of Twin Cities “old guard” political insider scene, key figures, power couples, lobbying and strategy firms turn up within one or two degrees of separation from already-implicated and indicted individuals.

So far, 50 people connected to the now defunct non-profit Feeding Our Future (FOF) have been federally indicted for allegedly embezzling $250 million from child nutrition programs, including its head Aimee Bock.

Last Thursday, the first three defendants out of the 50 — Bekam Merdassa, Hannah Marekegn, and Hadith Yusuf Ahmed — each pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of wire fraud. 

As part of the plea deal, Marekegn, the owner of Brava Cafe (a food site involved in the scheme) testified in court that she gave FOF more than $150,000 in kickbacks in exchange for sponsorship. 

Merdassa embezzled $3 million in federal food aid with the shell company Youth Investors Lab which used FOF as its sponsor. He admitted in court that Youth Investors Lab never actually served a meal.

Ahmed, who worked for Bock at FOF, admitted in federal court to taking kickbacks totaling over $1 million from food sites in exchange for enrolling them in the federal nutrition programs. Ahmed also started his own food site that claimed to feed 2,000 kids per day. 

The Feeding Our Future scandal features glaring connections between defendants and mainly Democratic politicians, although no elected officials have been indicted or accused of criminal wrongdoing by the DOJ.

However, Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney Andy Luger has implied that more indictments will likely follow. 

All We Know About Mayor Frey’s Connections to the $250 Million Food Aid Scandal – Sept. 29, 2022

Ward 6 Council Member and Wife Linked to Sweeping Scandal 

Council Member Jamal Osman’s wife Ilo Amba incorporated Urban Advantage Services in November 2020 and used it as a food site, according to a recent report by The Minnesota Reformer

Amba’s food site was sponsored by Partners In Nutrition, a Saint Paul non-profit which was founded by Aimee Bock and also named in indictments by federal prosecutors for taking kickbacks in exchange for sponsorship. 

Jamal Osman and wife Ilo Amba from 2020. Image courtesy of Jamal Osman’s Facebook.

Urban Advantage Center, which is registered at the same address as Urban Advantage Services, claimed to feed 2,500 kids per day. Amba started two other food distribution sites but neither were approved by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) who suspected malpractice early on in the scheme and eventually stopped payments. 

Council Member Osman, his wife Amba, along with two other men incorporated the non-profit Stigma Free International in 2019, another organization named in indictments. Before Osman ran for the city council he transferred the non-profit to Mayor Frey’s then-senior policy aide Abdi Salah, who was federally indicted last month.

Council Member Osman told Sahan Journal that he never worked with the food programs. However, he failed to disclose his wife’s involvement.

Mike Norton, vice chair of the Minneapolis Democratic Party, suggested removing Osman from office after the news broke. 

Neither Osman nor his wife Amba have been charged with any crimes. 

Jacob and Jamal 

Council Member Osman, who represents the majority East African Cedar-Riverside community, has been a key supporter in moving the mayor’s agenda at City Hall. In 2021, Osman played a key role in Somali voter outreach for Frey’s re-election campaign, helping secure electoral victories in ward 6

“From the very first moment that I set foot in Minneapolis, there was one community that embraced me, that worked with us. That were our friends through and through, and that was the Somali community,” Frey said to a crowd of supporters after greeting them in their native Somali tongue on August 28, 2021, at a joint campaign event with Jamal Osman. 

Weeks before Frey was re-elected, he tweeted: “@JamalOsmanMN’s partnership in City Hall has been indispensable. He’s putting the East African community first and knows how to get things done. Jamal has taken a serious approach to governing, and it’s an honor to have his endorsement.”

Months earlier on May 14, 2021, Mayor Frey and Council Member Osman met with Education Commissioner Heather Mueller on behalf of Feeding Our Future after MDE halted payments when it suspected fraud.  

According to the Star Tribune, Mayor Frey was provided with a list of talking points for the meeting from his senior policy aide Abdi Salah who got them directly from Bock, the alleged mastermind of the scheme. 

Bock sent Salah an email “containing the text of a proposed City Council resolution that questioned MDE’s commitment to minority children and business owners… Salah [then] sent the proposal to [council member] Osman, who offered to introduce it at an upcoming City Council meeting,” according to the Tribune. “Osman’s version of the resolution [was] almost identical to Bock’s initial proposal.”

In a statement he gave to the Tribune, Osman said, “I had never heard of the group ‘Feeding Our Future’ before the raids earlier this year,” and that he did not know Aimee Bock. 

Mayor Frey gave a similar statement, denying any political favors. “I learned Aimee Bock’s name in the last three months. I couldn’t do her any favors if I didn’t know her and didn’t know who she was.”

A senior adviser to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s (DFL-MN CD6) re-election campaign, Kendall Killian, isn’t taking Mayor Frey at his word. 

“[E]veryone in town looks the other way as a massive quarter billion-dollar fraud scheme is run literally out of City Hall. Abusing the privileges of the office to maintain power, and then stealing from hungry kids,” Killian tweeted after the indictments were publicized.

The Mayor’s Ties to Lobbying Firm Representing Feeding Our Future

More information has come out about Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s connections to attorney and lobbyist Nancy Hylden, who appeared in federal court last month with former FOF head, Aimee Bock. 

Hylden’s name is on FOF’s annual reports filed with the Attorney General’s Office going back to 2019. 

Mayor Frey’s wife, Sarah Clarke worked for Hylden Advocacy & Law up until January 2022, when the FBI raided Bock’s home and office and several food sites.  

Former Frey campaign veteran @BreeMinneapolis tweeted that Frey also worked with Hylden. “Jacob and Nancy also worked together at Faegre and Benson. She hosted multiple fundraisers for him, some with her husband, former Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.” McLaughlin served on the Hennepin County Board for 28 years and is now the executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Twin Cities; he was defeated in the District 4 race by Angela Conley in the November 2018 election.

Nancy Hylden and husband Peter McLaughlin. Image courtesy of Tony Gates’ Pinterest  

Hylden and McLaughlin are a political power couple in Minnesota and they each contributed $1,000 to Frey’s 2021 re-election campaign, according to campaign reports

In 2012, Hylden become a partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP before branching out to start her own firm. In 2013, McLaughlin was criticized for “repeatedly” voting “for multimillion-dollar trash-disposal agreements tied to the law firm where his wife works.”

Hylden is a lobbyist for many other Twin Cities companies and nonprofit organizations, and was a lobbyist for the Star Tribune 2009-2015. Her personal campaign contributions are aligned with the Democratic Party.

Hylden also employs former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader, Republican Amy Koch, as a “political strategist.” On October 5 WCCO anchor Esme Murphy featured Koch in a segment discussing the scandal’s fallout. (Due to a technical problem the WCCO video cannot currently be played in full.)

Nancy Hylden’s current list of registered lobbying clients, via the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.

Hylden Advocacy & Law is located next door to “All of Mpls”, a Frey-allied political action committee chaired by Karin Birkland which raised $2.37 million for the 2021 municipal election. Birkland is a former Faegre & Benson LLP partner. 

Richard Forschler, the PAC treasurer, was an attorney there and successor firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP 1989-2019; he is now at Rapp Strategies, Inc. Forschler partnered with Hylden in 2009 to try and retain Hennepin County trash disposal at Great River Energy, agreements which McLaughlin voted for. (Hylden denied lobbying her husband.)

All of Mpls intervened on both ballot questions and local races: in 2021 it supported Frey, opposed the police charter question, and supported the ‘strong mayor’ question. All of Mpls was criticized for distributing mailers last year that falsely claimed “Question 2 eliminates the police department.”

All of Mpls’ suite in the Flour Exchange Building is also registered to two other businesses owned by Leili Fatehi: Blunted Strategies, a lobbying firm for the cannabis industry; and Apparatus GBC, a political consulting firm which worked for Frey’s campaign. According to Campaign Finance Board filings All of Mpls paid Apparatus in August 2022. Fatehi, the owner of Apparatus GBC, is also listed as the campaign manager for All of Mpls. (More about Apparatus GBC ‘Public Benefit’ electioneering activities were disclosed in a 2019 filing with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office.)

Fatehi is married to Peter Ebnet, the Director of Policy and Government Affairs for the City of Minneapolis, appointed by Mayor Frey. Fatehi has also served as Frey’s appointee to the Metropolitan Airport Commission since 2018; she is also the registered lobbyist for Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation.

Constituents Calling For the Mayor’s Investigation, Resignation

Many constituents are frustrated from not getting answers to basic questions.

@MauraTwit2 tweeted, “Is Jacob Frey just scott free from this investigation now? What about his wife, Sarah Clarke, who worked for Aimee Bock’s attorney and lobbyist? What did Jacob and Sarah know, and when did they know it?” 

Jacob Frey and wife Sarah Clarke. Image courtesy of Jacob Frey’s Twitter page.

Opponents say the mayor has avoided scrutiny because of his “friendship” with US Attorney Andy Luger.  

North Minneapolis activist and filmmaker DA Bullock tweeted, “…someone should ask Frey or Luger on the record, did they have any discussion about the Feed Our Future before charges came down (possibly influence Frey’s wife timing of leaving Hylden’s firm). Seems like a lot of questions not asked.”

Mayor Frey’s detractors want him investigated after three of his men were federally indicted in this scheme, including Salah, his then-senior policy aide who gave the mayor talking points from Bock. 

@NurseRealityToo tweeted, “So the mayor of Minneapolis was an accessory to mass fraud. Should be grounds for removal from office.” Neither the mayor nor his wife have been accused of any wrongdoing by the DOJ or the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office. 

Youth Leadership Academy Linked to Bock

Another organization, Youth Leadership Academy, doing business as Gar Gaar Family Services, launched in 2020 to provide meals during the COVID pandemic. It was disqualified from serving meals in the federal Summer Food Service Program in 2022, but the organization appealed the decision. An internal appeals panel reversed the disqualification in May 2022. The conservative thinktank Center of the American Experiment has written about Youth Leadership Academy / Gar Gaar. The organization has not been named in any federal indictments.

Unicorn Riot reviewed Minnesota Department of Education records for the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and found in the 2021 “Participation Data” (XLSX) there is a reference to Youth Leadership Academy service site at 2500 New Brighton Blvd, Suite 110 in St. Anthony being sponsored by Feeding Our Future (Effective dates 10/01/2020 to 09/30/2021) with 500 daily enrollment. Aimee Bock is listed as the sponsor contact.

Additional Documents

Dan Feidt contributed to this report for Unicorn Riot.

Cover image sourced from SomaliTV Minnesota.

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