State Sen. Omar Fateh breaks silence on the federal investigation into campaign volunteer

A man in a suit with a face mask leaves a building.
Muse Mohamed enters the U.S. courthouse in downtown Minneapolis for a pretrial hearing on May 5.
Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for their free newsletter to receive their stories in your inbox.

A federal jury on Tuesday convicted a campaign volunteer for state Senator Omar Fateh of lying about how he handled three absentee ballots in the August 2020 primary election. Hours later, the senator broke his silence about the case for the first time, confirming that the volunteer is his brother-in-law.

Muse Mohamed, 33, was found guilty of two counts of lying to a federal grand jury for testimony he gave in October 2021. The jury of 10 women and two men deliberated for 45 minutes before returning their verdict.

“Our campaign’s mission has always been to motivate and organize the people of our district to participate in elections,” Omar said in a written statement supplied to Sahan Journal. “In doing so, we are committed to upholding our state’s election laws and processes. I am troubled by this conviction. I am more committed than ever to organizing and governing to strengthen a fair and free democracy.”

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Omar’s statement came about three hours after Senate DFL leaders released their own remarks about the case and called on him to publicly address the matter “firsthand for the sake of his constituents and the public at large.”

Omar did not address allegations of voter fraud that arose in Mohamed’s perjury trial. Mohamed was not charged with violating election law.

After prosecutors finished with their witnesses on Tuesday, Mohamed made a brief statement. Mohamed appeared confused about waiving his right to testify in his own defense, and briefly left the courtroom to discuss the situation with his attorney, Charlie Clippert. 

“I testified before, and I told the truth,” Mohamed said quietly, as he declined to take the stand and answer questions in front of the court.

Clippert gave a minute-long opening statement Monday, and rested his case Tuesday without calling any witnesses.

Mohamed and Clippert declined to comment on the guilty verdict as they exited the courtroom Tuesday. Mohamed will remain free on bond until U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel decides on his sentence in the coming weeks. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

Tuesday’s testimony suggested a deeper federal investigation into the “agent delivery process” of casting ballots in the August 2020 primary election in Minneapolis. Five people told Sahan in February that they were interviewed by the FBI. The grand jury investigation has been going on for at least one year and has involved at least 80 witnesses, according to testimony from an FBI agent.

No one else has been charged in relation to the investigation. 

An account of Mohamed’s grand jury testimony from last fall showed that the grand jury was investigating whether people filled out and cast ballots for voters without those voters’ knowledge. Previous reporting from Sahan Journal suggests the investigation appears to be centered around a state senate district and city ward currently represented by DFL politicians in south Minneapolis with large Somali populations.

Where did the absentee ballots come from? 

Mohamed’s trial began Monday with jury selection. Testimony began that afternoon and wrapped up before noon Tuesday. The prosecution spoke for 25 minutes in closing arguments, while Clippert’s final statements defending Mohamed lasted for 10 minutes.

According to evidence at trial: Mohamed told a grand jury multiple times last fall that he met three voters in 2020 and collected their absentee ballots from them in person. In all cases, Mohamed said at the time, the campaign “always checked to see if they hadn’t voted already” before turning in their ballots.

Mohamed’s statements contradict accounts from the three voters. Each told investigators that they never met Mohamed and never requested that someone hand-deliver their ballots for them. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Svendsen, who prosecuted the case, emphasized that Mohamed lied about information that “goes to the heart” of an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into possible voter irregularities during the August 2020 primary election. 

By lying about where he obtained three absentee ballots, Mohamed withheld key information that would have allowed the grand jury to make progress in its investigation, she told jurors. 

“Muse Mohamed didn’t want the grand jurors to know where he actually got those ballots,” Svendsen said. 

Clippert told jurors in his closing argument that Mohamed gave a consistent answer to a federal grand jury last fall about how he obtained and submitted absentee ballots on behalf of three voters.

“Did Muse Mohamed actually lie, or, did he just not tell the government what they wanted to hear?” Clippert asked. 

One witness testified Monday that at the time, Mohamed was volunteering for Omar Fateh’s campaign, which won the August 2020 DFL primary against incumbent Jeff Hayden by nearly 2,000 votes. 

One ballot Mohamed picked up was never returned to the elections office, and the office rejected another ballot because the voter had already cast a ballot in person, a Minneapolis elections supervisor testified Monday. The elections office only accepted one of the three ballots.

Prosecutors spent the bulk of Tuesday recapping the two testimonies Mohamed gave to a grand jury last fall. Prosecutors called FBI Special Agent Blake Hostetter to the stand, who, with Svendsen, reenacted key parts of Mohamed’s accounts. Transcripts of the testimonies were also displayed on screens around the courtroom for jurors to read. 

Hostetter testified that Mohamed’s appearance before the grand jury was part of a broader grand jury investigation into alleged mishandling of the “agent delivery process” during the 2020 primary election in Minneapolis. The investigation has been going on for a year and involves 80 witnesses, Hostetter said under cross-examination from Clippert.

At one point Tuesday, Mohamed appeared confused about deciding whether or not to testify. 

“If they ask me, I can do it,” Mohamed first told Judge Brasel. Brasel then explained to Mohamed that the decision to take the witness stand was his and his alone.  

“I will stay silent,” Mohamed then told Brasel. 

Clippert pulled Mohamed into a private conference room. They returned several minutes later to the courtroom where Mohamed officially declined to testify. 

Later, Clippert asked to call Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to testify about tense relations between some in the Somali community and the FBI. Hussein would likely have supported Clippert’s argument that some community members’ fear and distrust of federal authorities can cause witnesses to give answers favorable to the government’s case.

Clippert argued that Monday’s testimony from Nasro Jama, one of the three voters, opened the door for Jaylani’s testimony.

“I know she said she wasn’t scared, but she was harassed and clearly not happy to be here,” Clippert said.

Brasel ultimately barred Jaylani from testifying, stating that Nasro “was clearly not intimidated by anyone” during Monday’s testimony, “based on her words and body language.” 

Jaylani wasn’t in court during trial and did not respond to Sahan Journal’s requests to comment Tuesday. 

Contesting the ‘agent delivery process’ and the handling of absentee ballots 

Prosecutors told jurors at trial that the “agent delivery process” allows people to vote via absentee ballot because of a disability or incapacitating health problems. Voters must fill out a form requesting that an agent—someone of their choice—pick up a blank absentee ballot for them to fill out, and then deliver the completed ballot in a sealed envelope to their local elections office. 

The voter must also certify that they have a “preexisting relationship” with that agent, meaning they know each other, prosecutors said. 

The grand jury investigation last fall probed whether people’s ballots were being filled out without their knowledge using the agent delivery process, Hostetter said. If voters didn’t fill out the ballot, the investigation sought to learn who filled out their ballots for them, he added. 

Mohamed testified before a grand jury on September 30 and on October 14, 2021. In both cases, he said several times that he collected one ballot each from three voters and hand-delivered them to the elections office to cast as an early vote.

Mohamed told the grand jury that his main job for Omar, then a primary candidate, involved knocking on “thousands” of doors for the campaign. Mohamed said he volunteered on the side while he was a full-time student. 

“My job was to pick up sealed envelopes,” Mohamed stated in September 2021, according to a transcript shown in court on Tuesday. “It’s part of the door knocking. If you have someone who has a sealed envelope, you pick it up.” 

Prosecutors at last fall’s grand jury inquiry asked Mohamed multiple times whether Omar’s campaign or anyone else instructed him to pick up and deliver ballots. He answered that this was a widespread practice in campaigning. 

“No one told me to do those specific things, but as part of volunteering, it’s to go out and speak to the community,” he responded in his grand jury testimony. 

Mohamed said anyone who acted as a ballot agent could only take up to three ballots to the elections center, and that he saw people from other campaigns doing the same thing. 

In the reenactment and transcripts of last fall’s inquiry, Mohamed also stated that frail and elderly voters would call Omar campaign’s office asking for help with their ballots. Mohamed added that a campaign official named “Dawson” gave him a list of the three voters in question whom he later acted as an agent for.

While evidence presented in court Tuesday did not specify who Dawson is, Mohamed’s remarks likely refer to Dawson Kimyon, Omar’s campaign manager and current legislative assistant at the state Capitol. 

Kimyon has not responded to repeated requests from Sahan Journal for comment.

Witnesses say they never met Mohamed and did not ask him to deliver ballots

Two of the voters in Mohamed’s case testified Monday that they did not know Mohamed and had not signed the forms he delivered to the city’s elections office in their names. Neither was frail or elderly; one was 22 and said he’d been healthy all his life.

After his September testimony, the grand jury called back Mohamed to testify again: The grand jury believed he had more information that was useful to their case, said Hostetter, the FBI agent. Svendsen, the prosecutor, emphasized throughout her questioning Tuesday that this second grand jury appearance was an opportunity for Mohamed “to set the record straight.” 

Two statements Mohamed made during his October 2021 testimony led to both counts of his perjury charges and conviction. 

In  the first statement, Mohamed explained that he got three ballots from the elections office, brought the ballots to the voters to fill out, and returned the ballots to the office. In the second statement, Mohamed told the grand jury that he took a ballot to Nasro Jama, who filled it out, “sealed it up, and then told me to drop it off for her.” 

“That is not possible,” a prosecutor told Mohamed in October in response to his testimony.

The prosecutor informed Mohamed that FBI agents had spoken with the three voters, who all stated that they didn’t know Mohamed and never requested that he deliver their ballots. 

Mohamed responded that it’s possible the voters didn’t remember him. The prosecutor then stated that Nasro specifically told investigators that she never gave her ballot to Mohamed. She had voted in person earlier, and the absentee ballot Mohamed submitted in her name was rejected, according to court documents. 

Mohamed stuck to his story.

The grand jury questioned Mohamed directly and noted he seemed nervous

At some point during his October testimony, members of the grand jury asked Mohamed their own questions. One noted Mohamed’s body language, stating that he seemed nervous and was shaking and sweating throughout his testimony.

The prosecutor told Mohamed multiple times last October that he was under oath, and that lying could lead to criminal penalties. Mohamed said he understood.

The grand juror told Mohamed that they believed he was “a good person” and that “sometimes good people get taken advantage of” and “caught up in bad things.” Now was a prime opportunity to make a clear decision and decide where his future was going, the grand juror told Mohamed. 

Mohamed thanked the juror for the advice and told him that he wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to pray.

“I ask my God to give me strength,” Mohamed said in October. 

“You’re still going to tell us that it’s possible that you still met with the three voters?” the juror then asked. 

“Yes,” Mohamed said, “that is my decision.” 

Another juror asked Mohamed whether Omar’s campaign ever seemed worried that he would lose the election. No, he replied. 

A third juror asked Mohamed if he ever received a monetary award from the campaign to act as an agent for ballots. No, he replied.

Political reverberations

The verdict, and the case’s connections to a state senator, reverberated through Democratic party politics.

Mohamed is also the brother of Zaynab Mohamed, a DFL-endorsed candidate running for a neighboring state Senate district in Minneapolis. Zaynab spoke publicly about the case for the first time Monday, telling Sahan Journal that she is not subject to the investigation into her brother.

Ken Martin, the DFL chairman, said that crimes like Mohamed’s are quite rare but must be taken seriously.

“The conduct of Muse Mohamud Mohamed was completely unacceptable and he deserves to be held accountable for breaking the law,” he said. “Though actions like his are exceedingly rare, they still deserve our strongest and most unequivocal condemnation. I am grateful to the prosecutors who caught Mohamed’s illegal conduct and brought him to justice. The vigilance of our law enforcement agents in spotting and tackling the rare instances of election-related misconduct only serves to underscore the security of our elections.”

In a statement released hours before Omar broke his silence, Senate DFL leaders emphasized the importance of free and fair elections and called on Omar to publicly address the issue.

“The ability to cast a vote freely, with the assurance it will be counted accurately, is a cornerstone of our democracy. Every allegation of voter irregularity is a serious matter,” said Senate DFL Leader Melisa López Franzen and Assistant Senate Leaders Mary Kunesh, Foung Hawj, and Nick Frentz in a joint statement to Sahan Journal. 

“The Caucus stands for transparency and fair elections without exception. We look forward to Senator Fateh addressing this matter firsthand for the sake of his constituents and the public at large.”

Additional reporting by Becky Dernbach.