By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — State Republicans are calling for an audit of COVID spending, after details emerged about a federal investigation into an alleged large-scale fraud scheme that diverted millions intended child nutrition programs to individuals who spent lavishly.

The St. Anthony-based organization Feeding Our Future is at the center of the case. Investigators allege that the organization distributed federal funds to companies that said they were providing free meals to needy children, but instead funneled the money to individuals who purchased “real estate, cars, and other luxury items,” according to court documents.

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“Almost none of this money was used to feed children,” according to one search warrant.

The nonprofit’s website describes its mission as using the Child and Adult Care Food Program, a federal U.S. Department of Agriculture program, “to increase healthy food access for Minnesota’s youth and seniors.”

Its executive director, Aimee Bock, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday or Friday. WCCO went to the St. Anthony office directly on Friday and Abshir Omar, who said he is a consultant for the organization, declined to comment, but said there would be a statement released soon.

No one has been charged in the case.

Lawmakers at the state capitol responded to the allegations on Friday, with Republicans calling for a full audit of COVID-related funds and spending.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg for fraud in federal Covid programs,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, in a statement, demanding that Gov. Tim Walz “review every state and federal dollar being distributed by his agencies.”

The FBI said it began investigating Feeding Our Future last May after the Minnesota Department of Education, responsible for administering federal child nutrition programs, expressed concerned about the massive increase in funds for sites sponsored by the organization.

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The nonprofit received more than $300,000 in federal funds in 2018 and by 2021 that ballooned to more than $197 million, the documents say.

In a statement, the department said it “did not receive sufficient information and supporting documentation to explain the increase in meal reimbursement claims” from Feeding Our Future and then reported to the USDA Midwest Regional Office and the USDA’s Office of Inspector General.

Federal investigators said that usually federal child nutrition programs function through educational-based programs or activities, but during the pandemic, the USDA waived some standard requirements.

At the same time, investigators wrote, state government’s stay-at-home order and telework policies interfered with the ability to oversee the program.

“According to [education department officials,] this left the program vulnerable to fraud and abuse,” court documents say.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who is chair of the chamber’s education committee, praised the department’s diligence in reviewing the funds.

“I’m sure other agencies and departments could use support for oversight, so I am calling for an audit of all COVID-related funds and spending to hold accountable bad actors,” he said in part. “We must ensure these dollars are going to those who need the help.”

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the education finance committee called the allegations “alarming” and also supported the Education department’s actions.

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“These programs are intended to serve children and families, and it’s critical that assistance goes to those who need it,” he said in a statement.

Caroline Cummings