Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Council Member Jamal Osman met with the Minnesota education commissioner last spring after the department halted federal nutrition funding to an organization now under federal investigation for fraud.
Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said in court documents that she believes the virtual meeting last May was “the only meeting I’ve attended with government officials concerning [the Minnesota Department of Education’s] administration of the USDA food program during the pandemic, Feeding Our Future, or any of Feeding Our Future’s sites.”
The Minneapolis officials’ involvement in the meeting is disclosed in civil court documents, which are drawing new attention after federal authorities searched Feeding Our Future’s headquarters last week as part of a fraud investigation. The organization and several associated with it are accused in search warrants of misusing federal money meant to provide meals for children in poverty.
A spokesperson for Feeding Our Future denied any wrongdoing on the part of the organization.
Osman founded Stigma-Free International, one of the nonprofits through which authorities allege money in the fraud scheme flowed, but said in a statement that he cut ties with the group before the period outlined in search warrants.
Frey received campaign contributions from six people named in the search warrants. He said he learned of the allegations after search warrants were unsealed last week. The mayor said he does not intend to keep the money and is working with an attorney to determine where he should send it, given the fraud allegations.
If the allegations are true, Frey said, “it’s reprehensible.”
A virtual meeting
Feeding Our Future was formed in 2016 and claimed to help community partners participate in the federal nutrition program.
According to court documents, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) became concerned with the sharp increase in money going to sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future and blocked its funding. The organization sued the department in November 2020, claiming discrimination against a nonprofit that worked with racial minorities.
In May, while Feeding Our Future was challenging the department in civil court, Frey and Osman met with the commissioner and other staff at MDE, according to documents in the case. Frey discussed the meeting in interviews this week. Osman declined interview requests but issued statements.
Both Frey and Osman said they heard from people who were concerned about whether vulnerable people would have adequate access to food. Both said they recalled that the meeting was about federally funded food programs generally, rather than Feeding Our Future specifically.
Emails provided by Frey’s office show that in May staff on the city’s intergovernmental relations team asked state officials for clarity on whether requirements for the federally funded Summer Food Service Program had changed.
On May 13, a government relations representative for the city emailed MDE thanking them for information about the federal program and said Frey and Osman “would like a meeting with the Commissioner to discuss this further.”
A virtual meeting was held the next day.
Frey participated in part of the meeting and said he is “99% sure” he left early to attend to something else. He later contacted a Star Tribune reporter to say he had corroborated with others present that he had left early.
“I didn’t think twice about it,” said Frey, adding that he frequently talks with state officials about other issues like the coronavirus pandemic and public works projects. “It is almost the definition of my job to at the very least get additional information and understanding when a community is explaining concern around food shortage.”
Osman said in a statement Friday: “I was very concerned about hungry kids during the closures of schools. I asked Commissioner Mueller to ensure that all effort was made to have this [federal] program feed underserved youth in Minneapolis.”
He added: “I didn’t mention Feeding Our Future or any other organization during the meeting. It was about kids in my ward being hungry.”
An MDE employee, in a deposition filed in court, said she did not recall Feeding Our Future being mentioned specifically but “the issue of stop payment in general terms did come up.”
The education commissioner, through a spokesperson, declined to comment further.
Forming a nonprofit
In 2019, before his seat on the City Council came up for election, Osman and three others incorporated the nonprofit Stigma-Free International Inc., according to business filings first reported by the Sahan Journal. Records filed with the state in October 2020 update the list of incorporators, removing Osman’s name and listing three new people .
In the search warrants released last week, federal authorities said Stigma-Free International is “another company that appears to be fraudulently receiving Federal Child Nutrition Program funds under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future.”
The warrant says: “Records obtained from U.S. Bank and Bank of America show that Stigma-Free International Inc. received more than $6.5 million from Feeding Our Future since January 2021. Bank records show that none of this money was used to purchase food or meals for underprivileged children.”
In a statement, Osman said that he formed the nonprofit as part of his work to provide businesses with training about crisis mental health responses. He said he “gave up” the nonprofit when he decided to run for office in the summer of 2020 and has had no association with it since then.
“While I operated and was associated with Stigma-Free, we never worked in delivering food or meals,” Osman said. “We had no association with Feeding Our Future and received no monies from them while I was with the nonprofit.”
Officials with Stigma-Free International — which has since dissolved — could not be reached for comment Friday.
Donations and an appointment
Two months after the meeting with the Department of Education, in July 2021, Frey received donations from six people listed in the search warrants.
The donations were logged within days of a fundraiser held at one of the addresses listed in the search warrants.
Frey said it was one of many fundraisers he’s held with the Somali community, which has provided key support in his recent elections.
“Just to be very clear, there was no discussion whatsoever of these allegations or of the nature of any of the substance that is addressed in them,” Frey said. “As I recall, we talked about safety, police accountability, which was a topic in every fundraiser, and Somali history and politics.”
Each of the donors listed in the search warrants gave $1,000, the maximum amount allowed in a mayoral race each year. The donations represented a small fraction of the roughly $676,000 raised between Jan. 1 and Oct. 26, according to campaign finance reports.
One of those donors, Abdikadir Mohamud, was later appointed to the mayor’s community safety work group. Frey said there was not an application process for the group.
“We routinely conduct community engagement and we heard from individuals that were interested,” Frey said. “A big part of all these groups was to have diversity of thought and background and so we wanted to ensure some Minneapolis, East African representation.”
Mohamud could not be reached. Frey said Friday that Mohamud is no longer on the group.
Staff writers Kelly Smith, Faiza Mahamud and Maya Rao contributed to this report.