The owners of several companies at the center of an FBI fraud investigation involving meals for the poor received tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money despite having a history of criminal and financial problems.

At least two of the individuals who investigators allege benefited from the scheme involving the nonprofit group Feeding Our Future have felony convictions related to theft. One man, at the time he allegedly received more than $600,000 in program funds, was on probation involving a theft from a Burnsville pharmacy. Another was nearly six figures in debt to the IRS.

The problems went undetected in part because neither the state of Minnesota, which awarded the federal money, nor Feeding Our Future, which sponsored the companies, conducted background checks.

Feeding Our Future Director Aimee Bock defended her organization's decision not to look into the backgrounds of her subcontractors.

"Please remember that one of the reasons Feeding our Future has been successful is because we keep the federal dollars in the local community," Bock said in an e-mail. "Many of the young black men in our state have records, but when given a chance they have shown that their past does not define their future or even their present."

The Star Tribune attempted to interview 17 people accused of fraud by the FBI in search warrant applications made public last month. One declined to comment and most did not respond to calls, e-mails or letters.

Feeding Our Future sponsored three prime contractors that investigators maintain played central roles in a massive scheme to defraud the government. Altogether, the FBI claims the owners and business associates of the Safari Restaurant & Event Center, Empire Cuisine & Market and S&S Catering stole at least $45 million.

Instead of using the money to buy food for children, the FBI search warrants allege, the owners went on spending sprees, snapping up luxury vehicles, lakefront real estate, jewelry, cybercurrency and other goods in the United States and abroad.

So far, no one has been criminally charged.

Though Bock said she never saw evidence of fraud among her subcontractors, she acknowledged in a recent e-mail that she terminated Empire's contract in 2021 at one of its sites because of concerns over "poor service delivery."

Bock's attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, said that Feeding our Future did not conduct background checks on any of its partners, saying that such checks "would eliminate a lot of great organizations" because arrest and incarceration rates "are so much higher for African Americans and Latinos." He added that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), which administers the federal program, does not "provide any guidance or information regarding this topic."

Officials at MDE said background checks are not part of the sponsor or site application process outlined by the federal program. However, the agency said it checks to see if the subcontractor's sponsor — Bock in this case — has been disqualified from participating in U.S. Department of Agriculture food programs.

Udoibok said Feeding Our Future could have been guilty of "race discrimination" if it excluded applicants with criminal records. He said the legal troubles discovered by the Star Tribune do not show the organization made a mistake, saying it is unlikely Feeding Our Future "would have done anything differently."

Bock herself filed for bankruptcy with her ex-husband in 2013, which she attributed to medical debt.

Safari restaurant

When the owners of Safari Restaurant in Minneapolis first asked state officials to fund their efforts to serve meals to poor children in April 2020, MDE said no, citing the restaurant's lack of a track record.

Feeding Our Future immediately appealed, court records show.

In an e-mail to MDE, Bock said the denial was shocking considering Safari's "great work" in providing culturally relevant foods to children of color during the pandemic.

Two days later, MDE reversed itself and approved Safari's application. Within three months, Safari claimed to be serving breakfast and lunch to 5,000 children a day at its restaurant off E. Lake Street, according to the warrants. The company quickly expanded its role in the food program, creating partnerships with other companies to seek reimbursement for serving meals in St. Paul, Willmar and other cities.

Some of the people running those companies had encounters with the criminal justice system.

Salim Said, one of the Safari owners, was convicted in 2011 on felony charges of fraud, theft and forgery in Indiana after police said he used a stranger's stolen debit card information to spend $1,040 on laptop computers at Walmart, court records show.

Ahmed Ghedi, co-owner of a company that claimed to serve meals in St. Paul as part of the Safari network, pleaded guilty in 2020 to a felony charge of receiving stolen property in 2017. Authorities say he drove a man from a Burnsville pharmacy after the man stole $1,223 worth of pills, including opioids. Ghedi was sentenced to three years of probation.

Ahmed Artan, whose company claimed to serve up to 2,000 meals a day to children in Willmar, was charged last fall with felony domestic assault by strangulation in a dispute with his ex-wife, court records show. Artan claimed in court filings that it was she who assaulted him, and recently pleaded not guilty.

Artan's company, Stigma-Free International, received more than $6.5 million from the program, according to the FBI.

"The bulk of the money was transferred to entities controlled by individuals associated with Safari Restaurant," the search warrants say.

According to the Education Department, Stigma-Free received approval to operate its meals program in a building on 4th Street SW. in downtown Willmar. But the owner of the property, Tom Amberg, told the Star Tribune that he never leased it to Stigma-Free and had never heard of the company.

Bock countered that Stigma-Free ultimately chose another site around the corner and notified MDE of the change. But the department never approved that site, records show. Bock said Feeding Our Future staff visited the Willmar site three times and found nothing rising to a high level of concern.

Altogether, Safari obtained more than $15 million in program money between 2020 and 2021, but "little of this money" was spent on food, according to the FBI. Artan personally received $779,666 while Ghedi shared in at least $2.1 million, the search warrants allege.

"I am confident, now, having gone over what we can infer to be the [FBI's] allegations, that Mr. Artan has committed no crimes," said his attorney, Barry Edwards, in an e-mail. "I am hopeful that the U.S. Attorney will see the errors in their assumptions before making an erroneous charging decision. If not, we have every confidence that we will win in court."

Edwards also questioned whether allegations by his client's ex-wife were relevant and an accurate portrayal of Artan.

Said allegedly collected at least $1.9 million, which he used to buy a $950,000 home in Plymouth and an $87,000 Chevrolet Silverado, the warrants alleged. Along with two of his business partners, Said also used $2.8 million in program funds to purchase an office building on Park Avenue S. in Minneapolis, the warrants alleged.

Empire Cuisine

Empire's main business is a small restaurant and adjoining grocery in downtown Shakopee.

Like many of Feeding Our Future's subcontractors, the growth of Empire's meal program was meteoric. The company was started by Abdiaziz Farah in April 2020, shortly after the pandemic forced Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to declare a state of emergency. The company quickly created a network of other providers that claimed to be serving more than 160,000 meals a day at 25 sites in Minnesota, according to the FBI.

The IRS filed a tax lien against Farah in 2018 for $89,516 that was released in August 2021. The grocery store faced financial problems of its own last year: The state levied a $3,419 tax lien against the business in June 2021 that was released two months later, and American Express won a $15,846 court judgment against the grocery and Farah's co-owner in July that was settled after a month.

The FBI alleges that one of Empire's busiest sites supposedly operated at 1506 Southcross Drive in Burnsville, where the company claimed more than 50,000 meals were served in November 2021. But a federal agent surveilled the site the day before Thanksgiving and saw "no activity." The agent also found no evidence of meals being served several days in December.

Hussein Mohammed, an employee of neighboring Super Gas USA, said he saw many people come through last summer, and noticed empty cases in the garbage out back after food was given away. But he noted that traffic had dropped a lot over the last four months.

Karen Sauer, a mother of four, said she practically filled the trunk of her car with groceries when she started going to the Southcross site last spring: chicken, beef, bread, fresh vegetables, dry goods. By midsummer the site was giving her between a quarter and half of her usual allotment; there was "no quality meat and the produce was rotten so I stopped going," she said.

Bock said through her attorney that she hasn't reimbursed Empire for meals since June 2021. "Ms. Bock visited the site and was very upset about the quality of the food," Udoibok said.

According to the FBI, $11.1 million of the $16 million received by Empire or its affiliates was misappropriated. Farah allegedly used $29,000 of the funds to buy a Porsche and $575,000 to purchase a house in Savage. Agents alleged his partner, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, spent more than $1 million in program funds on two undeveloped lots near the shore of Prior Lake.

S&S Catering

Like the other major operators in the alleged conspiracy, S&S Catering put together a network of sites that they claimed were feeding more than 10,000 children a day in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to the FBI.

The company was formed in 2018 by Qamar Ahmed Hassan and operates out of a modest storefront on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis. The FBI said S&S claimed to be providing food to three meal sites, one of which it said would be operating out of an apartment building and serving some 5,000 children a day — more than Wayzata High School. MDE tried to block that site but later dropped its opposition.

Altogether, S&S received $13.8 million in program money from 2020 to 2021, the FBI alleges, but just $465,000 of those funds were spent on meals.

Hassan and the owners of S&S Catering's three subcontractors were the primary beneficiaries, according to the FBI. Hassan used $505,000 in program money to buy an apartment in Kenya, and she and the owner of an S&S subcontractor, Academy for Youth Excellence, used $2.5 million in program funds to purchase S&S Catering's home on E. Lake Street plus two adjacent buildings, according to the FBI.