Big Lake woman latest to plead guilty in Feeding our Future case

A woman walks into a courthouse
Sharon Ross walks into the federal courthouse in Minneapolis ahead of her plea hearing Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

A Big Lake woman on Wednesday admitted stealing more than $2.4 million from government child nutrition programs. Sharon Ross is among five dozen people charged in connection with the Feeding our Future investigation and the 17th to plead guilty.

During a 37-minute hearing in a Minneapolis federal courtroom, Ross admitted that she falsely claimed to have served 900,000 meals to children in need, with a third of the meals purportedly served in September of 2021 alone.

In exchange for Ross entering a guilty plea to a single count of wire fraud, prosecutors agreed to drop nine other wire fraud counts and two counts of money laundering.

The plea means that Ross, 53, avoids a trial that had been scheduled to start Jan. 22.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Ross was the executive director of the St. Paul-based nonprofit House of Refuge, which purported to operate meal sites under the sponsorship of the larger nonprofits Feeding our Future and Partners in Quality Care.

Ross admitted spending the stolen money on vacations to Florida and Las Vegas, a suite at Target Center, and a house in Willernie, Minn. a tiny Twin Cities suburb near White Bear Lake.

Ross said that she split the proceeds from the scheme with Hanna Marakegn, who pleaded guilty in October of 2022 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Marakegn, the owner of Brava Cafe in Minneapolis, falsely claimed to have supplied food to House of Refuge. Marakegn also fraudulently claimed to have served more than two million meals at her restaurant in 2020 and 2021.

Ross must pay $2.4 million in restitution and forfeit her house. The plea deal calls for a 37 to 46 month prison term, but the sentence is ultimately up to U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel.

Since late 2022, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis has brought charges against 60 people in the meal fraud case.

One defendant, Fartun Abdullahi Jama, 36, died of apparent natural causes in April. Her family declined to have an autopsy performed for religious reasons, but the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office noted on Jama’s death certificate that she had a “reported history of seizures.”

The case is so complex that prosecutors filed the charges across 16 separate indictments and other charging documents.

Prosecutors said in a court filing that they hope to try a group of defendants allegedly connected to Empire Cuisine and Market in Shakopee beginning on April 1. The eight are suspected of defrauding taxpayers out of $40 million through a network of nonprofits and shell companies.