A senior aide to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey who resigned this week has been caught up in a move by federal prosecutors to seize 14 properties owned by people accused of participating in a massive scheme to misappropriate millions of tax dollars meant to feed needy kids.
Among those listed in the government forfeiture lawsuit is Abdi Nur Salah, who until Thursday worked as a senior aide to Frey and who investigators allege improperly benefited from the scam.
In the document, the federal government accused Salah of being part of a group that used at least $1 million in misappropriated money to buy property in Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park. Nobody has been charged in connection with the case, and Salah and his attorney said they dispute the government's allegations.
"There's a lot of things in this document that the government got wrong. And we look forward to defending it," said attorney Brian Toder. "He had a legitimate consulting business arrangement and he personally was not involved in anything that was alleged. We're looking forward to getting our discovery from the government and defending this."
Frey's office confirmed that Salah's employment ended Thursday, a development first reported by the Sahan Journal, but did not provide more details. Salah told the Star Tribune that he asked for a leave about two weeks ago and will not return to work.
"My wife is due. I'm expecting a baby. That's why I left. I took a leave and the mayor let me," Salah said. "I'm not going back to work. I want to commit to what is important now, which is ensuring that I support my family at this time as we expect a newborn."
The government's move to civilly seize property is unusual because the government usually seeks forfeiture as part of a criminal indictment, former prosecutors said. In the sprawling case involving Feeding Our Future, grand jury proceedings have yet to result in criminal charges.
Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger said the government is probably trying to make sure none of the people targeted by the FBI investigation sell the properties before it can act.
"Since they haven't done a criminal indictment yet, this is what they have to do in order to prevent those properties from being liquidated by the people who are claiming ownership of them now," Heffelfinger said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Baune, who filed the civil forfeiture case late last month, declined to comment.
All the properties sought by the government are owned by people who control or are affiliated with three contractors that investigators allege played central roles in the scheme to defraud the government. Altogether, the FBI claims the owners of Safari Restaurant & Event Center, Empire Cuisine & Market and S&S Catering stole at least $45 million. Each company was sponsored by Feeding Our Future.
Instead of using the money to buy food for children, the FBI alleged in search warrants made public last month, the contractors went on spending sprees, snapping up real estate, luxury vehicles, jewelry, cybercurrency and other goods in the United States and abroad.
In both the warrant applications and the civil forfeiture case, government officials revealed that their investigators have collected bank records for each of the entities. Based on those records, investigators allege that little of the $50 million or so that flowed to these companies through the program was spent on food.
The Minnesota Department of Education first raised the issue more than a year ago when officials moved to cut funding to Feeding Our Future and its contractors. Feeding Our Future appealed the decision, arguing that the organization's minority contractors were being targeted because of their race and because they served low-income children of color. A Ramsey County judge said he saw no regulations giving the state authority to stop paying Feeding Our Future at that point, and the state resumed payments.
The FBI launched its investigation a month later, after the department alerted it to potential fraud, court records show.
None of the properties sought for seizure are owned by Aimee Bock, executive director of Feeding Our Future. Bock has denied any wrongdoing and has claimed she is being persecuted for working mostly with minority businesses.
Other assets that investigators allege were bought with misappropriated funds, including several vehicles and two properties in Kenya, were absent from the forfeiture suit.
"They can always move to amend the complaint," Heffelfinger said, adding that the government often seizes cars, but it's more difficult to seize foreign land or property.
Two of the properties on the government's forfeiture list involve Salah, a relative of Abdulkadir Nur Salah, one of Safari's owners, according to the lawsuit. Abdi Salah and an unnamed partner allegedly used $200,000 in program funds to purchase a four-unit residential building on 12th Avenue S. in Minneapolis for $390,000 in October.
The U.S. Attorney's Office also is moving to seize a $1 million property on Noble Avenue in Brooklyn Park that was allegedly purchased primarily with misappropriated funds in October by Abdi Salah and a group of Safari owners and business associates.
Also on the government's forfeiture list: an office building on Park Avenue S. in Minneapolis that was allegedly purchased with $2.8 million in misappropriated funds by Safari co-owner Salim Said and two of his business partners, according to the FBI. The government also is seeking forfeiture of Said's $950,000 home in Plymouth.
Said has not responded to the Star Tribune's requests for comment.
The forfeiture list also includes the headquarters of S&S Catering on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis and two adjacent buildings, which were allegedly purchased with $2.5 million in misappropriated funds by S&S owner Qamar Ahmed Hassan and one of her business associates, according to the FBI.
Hassan has not responded to the Star Tribune's requests for comment.
The government also is seeking several properties belonging to Empire owners Abdiaziz Farah and Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, including Farah's $575,000 home in Savage and two undeveloped lots worth more than $1 million in Prior Lake owned by Nur.
Farah and Nur have not responded to the Star Tribune's requests for comment.
Staff Reporter Liz Navratil contributed to this report.