Frey and Osman meet with Minnesota education officials after payments to Feeding Our Future were halted
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Council Member Jamal Osman met with the Minnesota Commissioner of Education last spring after the department halted federal nutrition funding to an organization currently under a federal investigation for fraud.
Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said in court papers that she believed last May’s virtual meeting was “the only meeting I attended with government officials regarding [the Minnesota Department of Education’s] USDA’s pandemic food program administration, Feeding Our Future, or any of the Feeding Our Future sites.
Minneapolis officials’ involvement in the meeting is revealed in civil court documents, which are drawing new attention after federal authorities raided Feeding Our Future’s headquarters last week as part of a fraud investigation. . The organization and several people associated with it are charged in search warrants with embezzling federal money intended to provide meals for poor children.
A spokesperson for Feeding Our Future denied any wrongdoing by the organization.
Osman founded Stigma-Free International, one of the nonprofits through which authorities allege money from the scam scheme flowed, but said in a statement he cut ties with the group before the period specified in the search warrants.
Frey received campaign contributions from six people named in the search warrants. He said he became aware of the allegations after the search warrants were unsealed last week. The mayor said he had no intention of keeping the money and was working with a lawyer to determine where he should send it, given the allegations of fraud.
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 about the sharp increase in funding for sites sponsored by Feeding Our Future and blocked its funding. The organization sued the department in November 2020, alleging 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 MDE staff, according to case documents. Frey discussed the reunion in interviews this week. Osman declined interview requests but released statements.
Both Frey and Osman said they heard people worrying about whether vulnerable people would have adequate access to food. Both said they recalled the meeting being about federally funded food programs in general, rather than Feeding Our Future specifically.
Emails provided by Frey’s office show that in May, staff from the city’s intergovernmental relations team asked state officials to clarify whether the requirements of the federally-funded summer food service program federal government had changed.
On May 13, a government relations representative for the city emailed MDE thanking them for providing information on the federal program and said Frey and Osman “would like a meeting with the commissioner to discuss this.” further”.
A virtual meeting took place the following day.
Frey attended part of the meeting and said he was “99% sure” he left early to take care of other things. He then 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,” Frey said, adding that he speaks frequently with state officials about other issues like the coronavirus pandemic and public works projects. “It’s almost the definition of my job to at least get additional information and understand when a community explains their concerns about food scarcity.”
Osman said in a statement on Friday: “I was very concerned about the starving children during the school closures. I have asked Commissioner Mueller to ensure that every effort is made to ensure that this [federal] program feeds underserved youth in Minneapolis.”
He added, “I didn’t mention Feeding Our Future or any other organization during the meeting. It was about the kids in my ward who were hungry.”
An MDE employee, in a deposition filed in court, said she did not recall specifically mentioning Feeding Our Future, but “the question of stopping payment in general terms came up”.
The education commissioner, through a spokesperson, declined to comment further.
Create a non-profit organization
In 2019, before his seat on the city council was elected, Osman and three others incorporated the nonprofit organization Stigma-Free International Inc., according to business documents first reported by the Sahan Journal. Filings with the state in October 2020 update the list of founders, removing Osman’s name and listing three new people.
In search warrants issued last week, federal authorities said Stigma-Free International is “another company that appears to be fraudulently receiving funds from the federal infant nutrition program under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future.”
The warrant states, “Records obtained from US Bank and Bank of America show that Stigma-Free International Inc. has received over $6.5 million from Feeding Our Future since January 2021. Bank records show that none of this money was used to buy food or meals. for underprivileged children.
In a statement, Osman said he started the nonprofit as part of his work to provide businesses with mental health crisis response training. He said he “dropped out” of 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 food or meal delivery,” Osman said. “We had no association with Feeding Our Future and received no money from them while I was with the nonprofit.”
Officials of Stigma-Free International – which has since disbanded – could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Donations and appointments
Two months after meeting with the Department of Education, in July 2021, Frey received donations from six people listed in the search warrants.
The donations were recorded days after a fundraiser held at one of the addresses listed in the search warrants.
Frey said it was one of many fundraisers he has organized with the Somali community, which provided key support in their recent elections.
“Just to be very clear, there has been no discussion of these claims or the nature of the substance that is addressed in them,” Frey said. “If I remember correctly, we talked about security, 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 were a small fraction of the roughly $676,000 raised between Jan. 1 and Oct. 26, according to campaign fundraising reports.
One such donor, Abdikadir Mohamud, was later appointed to the Mayor’s Community Safety Task Force. Frey said there was no application process for the band.
“We regularly conduct community engagement and have heard from interested people,” Frey said. “A lot of all of these groups were going to have a diversity of thoughts and experiences and so we wanted to ensure some representation from Minneapolis, East Africa.”
Mohamud could not be reached. Frey said on Friday that Mohamud was no longer part of the group.
Staff writers Kelly Smith, Faiza Mahamud and Maya Rao contributed to this report.