WILLMAR, Minn. — Since moving to west-central Minnesota in 2002, Abdulcadir Gaal has grown to love his hometown of Willmar. He has built a life in this city of 21,000, the place where he raised his kids and opened a business.
That's why Gaal, the owner of Somali Connection in the downtown business district, has been so distressed to learn of Willmar's connection to the Feeding Our Future scandal. Considered the largest COVID-19 fraud case in the United States, prosecutors have charged 48 people in the scheme, which involves the theft of tens of millions of federal dollars set aside for child nutrition during the worst of the pandemic.
Part of the indictment references Willmar, where prosecutors accuse the defendants of setting up a meal site under a reorganized nonprofit known as "Stigma-Free International" in the fall of 2020.
"It's unfortunate that the good folks that work really hard for a living and contribute to this community in a very positive way are being dragged in by some people that allegedly did something wrong," Gaal said. "It's not positive. I'd rather not be associated with this kind of news."
According to the indictment, 30-year-old Abdikadir Mohamud of Fridley "approached the owner" of a Somali restaurant in downtown Willmar in October 2020 to see if he would like to participate in a program to feed hungry kids. Mohamud then "offered to pay him $40,000 per month to use his small storefront restaurant for the Stigma-Free Willmar site" and ultimately paid him a total of $570,000 in 2021.
Neither the restaurant owner, nor the restaurant itself, is accused of engaging in any criminal activity. Rather, prosecutors say Mohamud set up a shell company and used the restaurant as a means for overreporting the number of meals served to local kids in Willmar.
"During the one-year period from November 2020 to November 2021, Abdikadir Mohamud and his co-conspirators claimed to have served approximately 1.6 million meals at the Stigma-Free Willmar site," the indictment states. "In support of these claims, Abdikadir Mohamud prepared and submitted fraudulent meal count sheets and invoices."
Furthermore, prosecutors say these defendants "submitted a fake attendance roster" to the government, listing 2,000 kids in Willmar who were supposedly receiving these meals. However, court documents reveal that only 33 of those 2,000 names aligned with real students enrolled in Willmar Public Schools. This, prosecutors say, helped Mohamud and others come away with more than $4 million from the Federal Child Nutrition Program, while Feeding Our Future got about a half-million dollars in "administrative fees."
Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin said he believes the defendants, under the umbrella of Feeding Our Future, took advantage of the city's local Somali restaurant. That restaurant owner could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but he previously told the Star Tribune that "this was not my idea, and I did not propose to provide free meals, nor did I go to anyone saying my community needs food... they came to me, and I provided and distributed meals to families the way I was told." He is not charged with having any involvement in overinflating the number of reported meals for reimbursement.
"I think probably, (the defendants) came to one of our local community members and said, 'Hey, we've got this feeding program we're doing, and it's to help people,'" Calvin said. "They exploited the generosity of rural Minnesota, exploited the vulnerability."
Calvin described himself as heartbroken over the Willmar connection to the indictment. The scheme in his town mirrored other Stigma-Free sites created by the defendants in Mankato, St. Cloud, Waite Park and St. Paul, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"These dollars were stolen from our residents, from our people. They were taken advantage of — not just the Somali people, but the Latino people, and the Korean people, and the Caucasian people," Calvin said. "These were federal dollars. They literally took money from all Americans. And that's a disgrace."
Abdulcadir Gaal and others in Willmar want their good name back. Home to a large population of immigrants from numerous countries, the city has received considerable national attention over the years as a melting pot of different cultures.
"They could be from Mexico, Guatemala, Mogadishu, wherever," Gaal said. "These are honest, hard-working people. One-hundred percent."
Watch more local news:
Watch the latest local news from the Twin Cities in our YouTube playlist: