The leader of a nonprofit accused by the FBI of playing a central part in a massive scheme to misappropriate tens of millions of dollars meant to feed needy children said she's being targeted for suing the state and working with mostly minority businesses.
In her first interview since an FBI raid Jan. 20, Aimee Bock forcefully and sometimes tearfully defended her management of Feeding Our Future. She said she never stole money nor has seen any evidence of fraud among the more than 100 subcontractors her St. Anthony organization reimbursed with federal money to distribute 100,000 meals a day to kids across Minnesota.
"I believe that this is an attack on a community," said Bock, 41, who is white. "I believe this is punishment for going against the grain. And I think this is punishment for holding a state agency accountable."
More than 200 law enforcement officers raided her house, office and numerous other sites. In some 200 pages of U.S. District Court documents unsealed that day, investigators detailed an elaborate scheme involving about two dozen people who they claim spent at least $48 million in federal nutrition aid on personal expenses including lavish trips, a Kenya apartment, a $1 million house in Plymouth and a Porsche.
"Almost none of this money was used to feed children," FBI Special Agent Travis Wilmer wrote in a sworn affidavit to justify the searches.
Neither Bock nor anyone else named in FBI search warrants has been criminally charged, and no arrests have been made. Witnesses are expected to testify at a federal grand jury in early February, a person familiar with the case said. Altogether, Feeding Our Future received $244 million in federal funds through the program from 2018 to 2021, according to the FBI, which has not alleged that all of those funds were misappropriated.
While FBI investigators paint a picture of a tangled web of people seemingly taking advantage of federal programs that loosened rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bock said she has receipts and documentation proving that the many businesses she contracted with did provide and distribute food. The FBI now has those receipts, she said, along with all of her other records.
She said Feeding Our Future visited those subcontractor sites at least monthly to verify they were following federal guidelines. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), which distributes the federal money, also visited two of the sites and had no concerns, she said. She only reimbursed subcontractors after they provided meals, she said, then the for-profit businesses could use their earnings for personal use.
"I do not believe that Feeding Our Future has submitted an invalid claim," Bock said.
For more than five years, Bock has battled MDE over denying and delaying federal funds to Feeding Our Future and its subcontractors. In the court cases, which involve Feeding Our Future and another nonprofit where Bock previously worked, the organizations have repeatedly accused the department of improperly holding up approvals and payments because their organizations primarily contract with minority businesses and nonprofits.
"I am the white lady," Bock said. "It's no secret. I can open the door and I can hold it open and provide the security so that it is safe for them [people of color] to walk through. Because every time they've tried to come to the door, it's gotten slammed in their face."
Bock accused the department of supplying the federal government with a bogus criminal case to derail her civil case against MDE, which was scheduled to go to trial in April. On Friday, Feeding Our Future's lawyers filed to dismiss the case. Attorney Kenneth Udoibok said they want to focus on the possible criminal case but intend to refile the civil case later.
MDE declined to comment Friday. In a statement after the FBI raid, the department said it would work to "ensure that impacted children and families still have access to the food support they need."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds child nutrition programs called the Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program, reimbursing schools, child care centers, after-school programs and nonprofits for meals and snacks for low-income children and adults.
"Sponsors," such as school districts and nonprofits, apply to MDE and then may manage multiple sites where food is distributed such as at community centers or affordable housing complexes. It's up to sponsors to oversee the paperwork and reimbursement claims for its sites.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA loosened guidelines on the types of organizations allowed to participate in the programs, opening them up to for-profit restaurants and allowing meals be bundled in multi-day packs and consumed off site. MDE officials told FBI investigators that the loosened guidelines made the programs more vulnerable to abuse, records show.
Though it started small, Feeding Our Future quickly became the largest independent sponsor of federal food programs in the state, Bock said. Feeding Our Future received $197 million in federal nutrition program reimbursements last year — up from $307,000 in 2018.
In warrants made public last week, the FBI challenged the group's ability to provide so many meals, noting that some sites claimed to be feeding more children than some of the state's largest schools. The FBI said it visited some of the sites in Feeding Our Future's network of 140 contractors and found no evidence of food being distributed or lines of children.
At one site in south Minneapolis, the FBI said it set up a surveillance camera to record activity in November 2021, when 59,541 children were allegedly supplied after-school snacks and suppers by Feeding Our Future.
"There was nothing suggesting that food was being prepared, served or delivered at the site," the FBI said in its application for a search warrant.
Bock said she's not surprised the FBI documented "minimal activity" during the two months it filmed at the location. She said that location was open just four hours a week on Saturdays, when workers delivered a week's worth of groceries to needy families. During the pandemic, Bock said, some sites used that approach instead of making families come to the site to eat to prevent spread of coronavirus.
"If the FBI was there other than those four hours, they aren't going to see anything," Bock said.
How much of Feeding Our Future's $244 million in federal aid from 2018 to 2021 went to organizations accused of misappropriating money is still unclear. The nonprofit worked with more than 100 partners in 2021, and only a fraction are listed in FBI documents.
One provider transferred $4.8 million out of the $10 million it received for meals into private bank accounts, the FBI alleges, with at least $500,000 of that flowing to a construction firm that does remodeling work. Another provider used more than $1 million in program money to buy two lakefront lots on Prior Lake, they allege.
In Bock's case, investigators said, she received a "kickback" from the owner of a meal provider that supposedly fed 5,000 children a day. According to the FBI, the restaurant company misappropriated $15 million in program money and its owner gave Bock a cashier's check for $310,000 in August 2021.
Bock said she received the money as payment for selling the restaurant owner a shuttered child care center in Burnsville that she had never gotten around to opening. The FBI also said Bock "stole" $600,000 in program funds by funneling money to Handy Helper's, a firm controlled by her boyfriend. He allegedly used the money on a trip to Las Vegas, where he dropped $9,000 at Caesars Palace, $6,700 at Gucci, $3,500 at Louis Vuitton and more than $21,000 at Royalty Exotic, a luxury car rental agency, the FBI contends.
Bock said she paid $600,000 to Handy Helper's to cover remodeling work done at the company's offices in St. Anthony.
"I am a rule follower," Bock said. "No, I did not commit a crime."
Bock said she has less than $200,000 in the bank and is not hiding any money in offshore accounts. She said it's possible but unlikely that some of the providers she worked with misappropriated money and she didn't notice.
"It would surprise me," Bock said. "Is anything possible? Sure. I don't have a criminal mind. Could I be outsmarted by somebody who is good at it? I suppose. But I firmly believe that that's not the case."
The education department has repeatedly faulted Bock's management of the nonprofit, noting she failed to file required tax forms and didn't have a financial staff to manage her complex, growing operation. The Minnesota Attorney General's Office withdrew Feeding Our Future as a registered charity last year after unsuccessfully requesting required tax forms and annual reports.
Bock has faced personal financial trouble in the past. In 2013, she and her then-husband filed for bankruptcy. Bock blamed medical debt.
Early morning FBI raid
Bock started Feeding Our Future in 2016 from her kitchen table, and it quickly grew to 65 employees who speak a total of 17 languages, she said.
She said she's always been passionate about helping children. After graduating from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2003 with a degree in elementary education, she worked briefly as a substitute teacher.
In 2008, she started working at a day care center in Burnsville, where she worked her way up from infant teacher to director in four years. She said she was appalled when other workers suggested she bring her sons elsewhere because they were the only white kids at the Burnsville center.
"It shook me," Bock said. "So I began advocating and working to make sure that our children aren't put on a different path."
Bock said Feeding Our Future kept about 10% of the money it received though the nutrition programs for administrative fees, which worked out to about $19 million in 2021. She said she paid herself $190,000 last year and spent the bulk of the rest of the money on payroll.
To leaders of other nonprofits, Feeding Our Future's rapid growth is unfathomable and they worry the allegations will ramp up distrust in federal nutrition programs that were long underutilized because of heavy regulations.
"When you look at the data, it's just too hard to believe," said Ellie Lucas, CEO of Hunger Impact Partners, a statewide advocacy and research organization, adding that the federal reimbursement rate covers the cost of providing food and modest administrative costs. "These programs are revenue-neutral. This is not intended to make anyone rich."
Last summer, Feeding Our Future reported to MDE it was providing 6.4 million meals — nearly 12 times the number of meals the Minneapolis Public School District was providing. In October 2021, the nonprofit was saying it was serving enough children to amount to a quarter of all those eligible for food assistance each day, Lucas said.
Bock said she found a way to scale up her organization by operating outside of the usual system of buying food from grocery stores and food banks, instead purchasing from local organizations and keeping the money in the community.
MDE began denying Feeding Our Future applications in 2020 and reported the "unexplained growth" of sites to the USDA. Bock's nonprofit sued MDE in Ramsey County District Court, where Judge John Guthmann told MDE in April 2021 it didn't have the authority to stop payments. In April, MDE provided information to the FBI, which started investigating the next month.
On Jan. 20, Bock said she was rattled awake at 7 a.m. by officers banging on her front door. She tearfully described some 50 officers rushing in, clutching shields, a battering ram and guns aimed at her. They spent about four hours going through her Rosemount house, she said, confiscating jewelry, shoes, her computer and phone — one of more than a dozen sites law enforcement searched.
Udoibok said prosecutors should have sent Bock a "target letter" letting her know she was under criminal investigation and inviting her in for a conversation to see if there was an innocent explanation.
Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger said there are downsides to that approach.
"If you are concerned about the destruction of documents, and you want to identify employees and other potential witnesses, then a search warrant is more likely what you would use," he said.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment. Doug Kelley, a former federal prosecutor, said the FBI's response and number of law enforcement executing search warrants is unusual, but shows the magnitude of suspected fraud. He added: "This was an all-out effort by the feds."
Staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this report.