Sharmarke Issa, board chair of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority for more than three years, has resigned after a building he helped buy was tied to a federal investigation of food program fraud.
"My resignation, which was effective on February 14, was due to personal matters," Issa said in an interview Wednesday. He did not specify those personal reasons, but said his resignation was not motivated by the federal investigation.
Last month, federal prosecutors investigating the Minnesota nonprofit Feeding Our Future filed a forfeiture lawsuit to seize 14 properties; Issa is part owner of one of those buildings. The lawsuit is part of an investigation into an alleged scheme to misappropriate millions of tax dollars meant to feed needy children.
Issa is not named in the forfeiture lawsuit, but property records show that Issa and Abdi Nur Salah, a former senior aide to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, purchased a four-unit residential building on 12th Avenue South in Minneapolis for $390,000 in October.
Issa is the second high-profile Minneapolis official to leave his job after news of the investigation became public.
In the forfeiture documents, investigators contend that Salah and an unnamed partner used $200,000 in program funds to buy the building. The federal government also accused Salah of being part of a group that used at least $1 million in embezzled money to buy another property in Brooklyn Park. Salah no longer works for the mayor.
In a statement Wednesday, Frey said: "If true, the allegations outlined in the federal investigation are appalling and run counter to the values that we are entrusted to uphold in Minneapolis."
Added Salah: "There are two sides to a story, and so far we heard one side of it. It is important to allow presumptions of innocence but history has demonstrated that this presumption isn't for everybody. There are absolutely no wrongdoings that I have been involved in or I'm aware of."
The FBI began investigating Feeding Our Future in May. Unsealed search warrants allege the nonprofit was part of a broad scheme to funnel millions of dollars from federally funded child nutrition programs to several entities to be laundered and used for personal real estate, cars and other luxury items.
Nobody has been charged in connection with the case, and Salah and his attorney said they dispute the government's allegations. Issa said he was not aware of the money having possible ties to the food program and his intention to partner with Salah was to make a difference amid a housing crisis.
"I'm an entrepreneur and I'm always looking for opportunities that can make a difference," he said. "Given my housing background I have always been interested in writing affordable housing and supporting those who truly need affordable housing units."
Aimee Bock, Feeding Our Future founder and executive director, has denied any wrongdoing and has said she is being targeted for working mostly with minority businesses.
Frey appointed Issa to lead the nine-member governing board of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and the City Council confirmed it in May 2019, making him the first Somali American in the nation to hold that role. The housing authority oversees more than 6,200 public housing units and serves at least 26,000 people in Minneapolis.
Growing up in public housing, Issa always had a keen interest in housing issues, and sought business opportunities in the United States and abroad, according to sources familiar with him.
Issa came to the United States in 1993 as a refugee at age 11. He earned both his bachelor's degree and a master's in urban planning from Minnesota State University, Mankato.