Two men who served as business advisers to Hennepin County have been indicted for allegedly defrauding COVID-19 pandemic aid programs of more than $1 million, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced Tuesday.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when small businesses were suffering deep economic losses, local and federal government agencies stepped in to provide support. These defendants saw this as an opportunity to defraud the aid programs by submitting phony invoices and applications for benefits," Luger said in a statement announcing the charges. "I commend the skilled investigators and prosecutors who work diligently to hold accountable those who defraud the aid programs designed to support our small business community."

According to the indictment, Tezzaree El-Amin Champion, 27, and Marcus Alexander Hamilton, 27, submitted more than 100 fraudulent invoices and grant and loan applications through their Futuristic Management Group LLC small-business consultancy firm. Champion founded the company and served as its chief executive and Hamilton worked as chief operations officer during the alleged scheme, which Luger's office said spanned from 2020 through present.

Champion and Alexander both made their initial court appearances on Tuesday. Champion entered a not-guilty plea, while Alexander is scheduled to return to court Friday for arraignment. Messages have been left seeking comment from both men and attorneys listed for them.

According to charges, Futuristic Management Group LLC entered into contracts with Hennepin County under a COVID-19 relief program called Elevate Business, also known as Elevate Hennepin. The program was designed to give local small businesses marketing and website assistance for free. Hennepin County agreed to pay Futuristic Management to provide technical assistance services to client businesses in the county at no cost.

But prosecutors allege that Champion and Hamilton billed Hennepin County for work they did not actually perform and work for which they were being paid for by clients who should have been receiving services for free.

The two are also being accused of submitting fraudulent applications to the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, as well as to the Hennepin County Small Business Relief grant program. They then allegedly transferred and misappropriated some of that money for themselves.

The indictment further alleges that Champion intimidated clients by showing them a firearm and telling them he always carried a gun. Law enforcement searched Champion's Andover home in April 2023, finding $126,000 locked in a safe and a Ruger LCR .357 revolver that Champion is prohibited from owning because of a prior felony conviction.

Champion and Hamilton were charged with three counts of mail fraud, three counts of wire fraud, one count of theft of government money, and one count of engaging in a monetary transaction in property derived from specified unlawful activity. Champion was also charged with one count of possessing a firearm as a felon.

IRS-Criminal Investigations, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Minneapolis Police Department investigated the case.

Sarah McKenzie, a Hennepin County spokesperson, said that "as soon as the county detected suspicious activity, county staff reported it to the relevant authorities."

"Elevate Hennepin has served thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs throughout the county," McKenzie said. "A key goal for Elevate Hennepin is to provide business resources that support all business owners, with a focus on the economic empowerment of people of color, women, and other underserved business owners that have historically experienced disparities and were further disproportionately impacted by the pandemic."