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Man targeted in meals fraud probe faces passport charge

April 21, 2022 GMT

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A man who authorities say is a target in a sweeping federal investigation into alleged fraud in a student meals program has been arrested on a passport charge, according to a complaint unsealed Thursday.

Mohamed Jama Ismail, 49, was charged with knowingly making a false statement when he applied for a new passport in March — after authorities seized his passport in January. Court documents say he falsely claimed that he lost his passport. Ismail was arrested Wednesday at the airport as he tried to travel overseas with the new document.

His attorney, Patrick Cotter, told the Star Tribune that Ismail’s motive was to go see his family, not flee the country. His wife, five children and his father live in Kenya.

Ismail is a co-owner of Empire Cuisine & Market. Court documents unsealed in January say Ismail and his partners collected at least $16 million in federal government funds as a meal provider for Feeding Our Future. The money was supposed to go toward meals for needy children. But authorities allege more than $11 million in program money was used to purchase homes and other real estate. The charges say Ismail personally received $2.2 million in program funds.

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No one has been publicly charged in connection with the alleged fraud, and Feeding Our Future director Aimee Bock has denied wrongdoing.

Cotter declined to address Ismail’s alleged involvement in the meals investigation.

“I am not going to comment on that,” Cotter said. “We will address that in court, where it belongs.”

According to the criminal charges, Ismail was told in January that he was the target of a federal investigation and would likely be indicted.

Empire’s main business is a small restaurant and adjoining grocery in Shakopee, a Minneapolis suburb. Ismail and Abdiaziz Farah started the company in April 2020, after Minnesota’s governor declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic. 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.

But the FBI alleges in search warrants that meals were not being served. Empire claimed that one of its sites, in Burnsville, served more than 50,000 meals in November 2021. A federal agent surveilled the site on the day before Thanksgiving and again on several days in December and found no evidence of meals being served..

Through her attorney, Bock said she hasn’t reimbursed Empire for meals since June 2021.