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For the leader of Feeding Our Future, an unlikely path to scandal

Aimee Bock’s organization was keeping a low profile as it was handling millions of government money when the video appeared on Facebook in January.

It allegedly showed one of Bock’s employees receiving an astonishing wedding gift: an ornamental carriage, laden with so much gold that guests flocked to see it up close.

Abdihakim Nur, a Somali activist and blogger who shot the video, said he heard the gold came from food vendors who were getting rich from the money they raised through the nonprofit. de Bock, Feeding Our Future.

Nur was appalled and his video caused a stir in the Somali community.

“We cannot condone such corruption that will put our entire community’s name in the news as fraudsters and criminals when we only have a few bad apples,” Nur said.

Five days later, the FBI raided Bock’s home and a sprawling government investigation was made public. Now Bock and his colleagues at Feeding Our Future are at the center of an extensive criminal investigation, accused of raising more than $5 million in kickbacks, kickbacks and other fraud proceeds in the part of a larger conspiracy to defraud public nutrition programs, according to indictments unsealed by federal prosecutors last week. Federal authorities say tens of millions of dollars earmarked for needy children have instead funded lavish spending on jewelry, luxury cars and properties in Minnesota and around the world.

As the accused ringleader of a conspiracy that cost taxpayers $250 million, Bock, 41, is an unlikely criminal mastermind. Although her resident boyfriend is a convicted felon, Bock’s most serious offense is speeding. She has a degree in primary education and supervised a daycare center for four years.

“I never even had a detention,” Bock said in a 2 12 hour-long interview on January 27, a week after the FBI raids. “I’m a rule follower…People are going to believe what they want to believe. But when we’re done, they’ll see that we did the right thing for this community.”

Bock no longer speaks to the media, but she has spoken at length about her career and her efforts to extend the government’s free lunch program to Minnesota’s East African community when she was still hoping to avoid criminal charges.

She cried several times during the interview. The first tears came when she talked about the FBI raid on her home. She cried again when she explained how the government froze her bank accounts, preventing Feeding Our Future from continuing to operate. She also choked up describing how she and her former husband were forced into bankruptcy in 2013 to deal with thousands of dollars in medical bills related to their youngest son.

But Bock was clear-headed about what she saw as her mission in life, which she described as finding a way to help level the playing field for immigrants and other people of color. She spoke with the fervor of a human rights crusader trying to raise government funds to help poor children and their neighborhoods.

“I am the white lady,” Bock said in the interview. “It’s no secret. I can open the door and hold it open and provide security so they can get through safely. Because every time they tried to come through the door, they were slapped in the face.”

It was a classic Bock exhibition, like many others that most visibly attracted her to the local Somali community, where she became something of a cult figure long before the January raids.

The recent charges outline a scenario in which Bock was able to capitalize on his unusually strong relationship with the Somali community to create a staggeringly successful criminal enterprise in which immigrants were willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain access to his money. . clubbing.

Even Bock’s critics marvel at his ability to connect with immigrants who sometimes can barely speak his language. Omar Jamal, a local Somali activist, said it was amazing to see nearly 300 Somali community members turn out to celebrate in 2021 when Feeding Our Future won a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Education that paved the way for the enormous growth of the non-profit organization.

The highlight of the evening came when a Somali woman performed a traditional buraanbur to honor Bock, praising her as “a woman who cannot be targeted”.

“It was like we had the female version of Robin Hood in Minnesota,” Jamal recently said. “There was nothing to worry about. She defeated the state… That’s the myth that Aimee created in the community.”

How Bock got here

Bock grew up in Cottage Grove and moved to Duluth for college, graduating from the University of Minnesota, Duluth in 2003 with a degree in education. She earned her teaching license but never worked in the profession full-time, serving briefly as a substitute teacher before having the first of her two sons in 2006.

After moving to the Twin Cities with his family in 2009, Bock found work at a daycare center in Burnsville, beginning to work with infants. She said the job completely transformed her outlook on life and work.

One of the perks of the job, she explained, was discounted daycare for her two toddlers. But Bock said her new colleagues strongly encouraged her to bring the children to one of the company’s other suburban locations, explaining that Bock’s sons would be the only white children in Burnsville.

“I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard,” Bock said. “It shook me to my core. So I started advocating and working to ensure that our children weren’t put on a different path. Everyone says children [of color] are left behind. They are no exception. Our system makes strategic decisions to retain them and I couldn’t be a part of it.”

In 2013, Bock joined the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children, where she helped more than 300 child care centers get the training they needed for accreditation. Many of these centers were owned by Somalis and other immigrants, making Bock the go-to person for anyone wanting to tap into this community.

In 2015, that experience led Bock to Providers Choice, an Edina-based nonprofit that bills itself as the “largest sponsor” of government meal programs in the United States. At the time, providers were eager to sign up new independent daycares for the government meals scheme. It was also where Bock met Christine Twait, with whom she would later start Feeding Our Future.

“She was the perfect candidate,” Twait recently recalled. “There was huge potential.”

Within months, however, Twait and Bock became frustrated with the pace of change and chose to leave and start their own nonprofit. Instead of signing 100 or more centers as they had hoped, only 18 new centers joined Providers Choice in 2015, according to state records.

Twait attributed the slow pace to Providers Choice’s insistence on documenting eligibility at levels above those required by the government. Suppliers have not seen the same problem.

“One of the approaches we had was to grow carefully and slowly, enough to be able to ensure the success of any center we created,” said Gail Birch, founder and former CEO of Providers Choice. “They had a different opinion.”

Bock and Twait’s new nonprofit, Partners in Nutrition, had a rocky start. The group sued the Minnesota Department of Education for approval, and the two-year battle took a toll on Twait’s mental health. She left Partners in 2017, leaving the reins to Bock.

“She loved conflict,” Twait said of Bock. “Aimee was absolutely energized by the legal maneuvers. She really thrives on tough conversations.”

Bock’s tenure did not last long. She was fired for misconduct in 2018, according to a complaint Partners filed with federal regulators regarding the conduct of Feeding Our Future in 2019. Through her attorney, Bock declined to address the reasons for her termination.

Partners continued to feud with Feeding Our Future as the new organization made inroads with its supplier network, taking over at least 28 meal locations from Partners in 2019, state records show. The partners complained that Feeding Our Future was breaking the rules by contacting its suppliers, which is prohibited, but state regulators dismissed the complaint in 2020, saying the allegations “could not be substantiated”, according to the archives.

Some operators said they were drawn to Feeding Our Future because the group only keeps 10% of claims for administrative costs, compared to 15% for other nonprofits. Others were attracted by the huge paychecks that were possible.

Jamal said it had become a game for some operators, who were posting their increasingly large six-figure checks on social media.

“The word went out like fire,” Jamal said.

Fardowsa Ali, owner of Hooyo Child Care Center in Minneapolis, said she signed up with both Partners and later with Feeding Our Future because Bock likely prevented her center from closing by providing last-minute training. minute just before a state inspection.

“I told everyone in the community, this lady has a heart,” Ali said.

Like other center operators, Ali said Bock made sure she got every dollar she was entitled to by reporting issues with her claims.

“Other bands promise to do all the paperwork for you, and then after you sign up, you have to do all the paperwork on your own,” Ali said. “But Aimee, she made it easy.”

Federal prosecutors say Bock made it too easy for meal providers to cheat the system by approving falsified reimbursement forms listing hundreds of children who didn’t exist.

Some members of the Somali community said they began to distrust the organization in 2021.

“The people running the sites lived in Section 8 housing. Poor people,” Nur said. “And all of a sudden they were living in million dollar homes and driving nice cars. It was free play.”

Bock, who has pegged her salary at $190,000 this year, was forced to hand over $185,000 to her bank account and the keys to her 2013 Porsche Panamera during a January 20 home search. Authorities also seized $13,462 in cash from him.

During her interview, Bock insisted that she had not stolen a penny from the government. But she said it was possible she found herself surrounded by scam artists.

“I don’t have a criminal mind,” Bock said. “Could I be overtaken by someone who is good at it? Sure. But I strongly believe that’s not the case. I believe it’s an attack on the community. I believe it’s is a punishment for going against the tide.”

Editor Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.

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