Crime, Law and Justice

Jury selection set to start in first Feeding Our Future trial

Two men walk into a courthouse
Attorney Edward V. Sapone (left) and 21-year-old defendant Abdimajid Mohamed Nur enter the U.S. District Courthouse in Minneapolis on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday morning in the trial of several of the people accused of taking part in a $250 million scheme to defraud government child nutrition programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The trial is the first to follow a sprawling federal investigation into the nonprofit Feeding Our Future and its affiliates.

The prosecution is so extensive that the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office brought its case against the 70 defendants using 19 separate indictments and other charging documents.

The trial was to include eight defendants, but only seven will face the jury. Judge Nancy Brasel ruled Friday that Mahad Ibrahim will be tried separately because his defense attorney is “indisputably and absolutely unavailable.” Details of the situation are not public.

The facade of a U.S. courthouse
The Diana E. Murphy U.S. District Courthouse in Minneapolis on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The case involves people who were allegedly connected to Empire Cuisine, a small storefront market in a Shakopee strip mall.

Like most of the other defendants, those charged in the Empire case face counts including wire fraud and money laundering. They’re accused of defrauding the Summer Food Service and Child and Adult Care Food programs, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has operated since the late 1960s. 

For decades, YMCAs, child care centers and social service agencies have received federal money from the programs to serve meals to children from low-income families when school is not in session.

To keep the programs operating during the pandemic shutdown, the USDA allowed restaurants to participate. Prosecutors say the conspirators took advantage of the new rules and set up fake meal sites, submitted falsified invoices and wrote the names of fictional children on attendance rosters. 

Prosecutors argue that Abdiaziz Farah and Mohamed Ismail, who started Empire Cuisine in early 2020, falsely claimed to have served more than 18 million meals to children at dozens of purported sites that they and their co-defendants established.

The government alleges that the defendants stole more than $47 million in taxpayer money over an 18-month period, laundered it through shell companies, and used it to pay for vehicles, real estate and luxury travel. 

A courtroom sketch
The trial was to include eight defendants, but only seven will face the jury.
Cedric Hohnstadt

According to the indictment, most of the food sites were opened under the auspices of Ibrahim’s nonprofit ThinkTechAct Foundation, which allegedly hid the origin of the funds received from the larger nonprofits Partners in Nutrition, also known as Partners in Quality Care, and Feeding Our Future. No employees of Partners in Nutrition have been charged in the case.

Prosecutors are expected to show jurors a series of checks totaling nearly $1.2 million from ThinkTechAct that Farah is alleged to have deposited in the spring of 2021 into the bank account of his company Empire Enterprises.

Later, Farah allegedly wrote a $250,000 check to a Minnesota homebuilder for a custom house in Prior Lake and spent more than $1 million on lakefront lots for the home.

In addition, prosecutors argue that co-defendant Abdimajid Nur wrote a $64,000 check from his shell company account for a new Dodge Ram pickup truck, spent another $30,000 at a Dubai jewelry store, and paid $12,000 to pay an online company to complete his coursework from Herzing University.

The indictment also alleges that Farah, his brother Said Farah, and Mukhtar Shariff paid “bribes and kickbacks” to employees of Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition in exchange for their sponsorship of the fraudulent meal sites in what prosecutors call a “pay-to-play scheme.”

Jurors are expected to hear testimony from the FBI forensic accountants who sifted through the defendants’ bank statements, wire transfers, and other financial records.  

According to court filings, the government has more than 1,000 exhibits that it may offer at trial, and there are more than 500 potential prosecution and defense witnesses.

Two men walk into a courthouse
Attorney Edward V. Sapone (left) and 21-year-old defendant Abdimajid Mohamed Nur enter the U.S. District Courthouse in Minneapolis on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Prosecutors write that they expect to call neighbors and property managers of the purported meal sites to talk about how some of the sites — including parking lots and vacant commercial buildings — were not plausible places to prepare and serve meals.

School district staff are also expected to testify about the names on the meal rosters which do not match those of children enrolled at nearby schools. A former Feeding Our Future employee is also expected to testify for the government about how the alleged kickback scheme operated.

The witness lists are not public, but one pretrial order lists several experts whom defense attorneys plan to call, including a former FBI forensic accountant and a retired IRS investigator who work at a White Bear Lake consulting firm. A law and business professor from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management also may testify for the defense.

MPR News reached out to attorneys for the seven defendants facing trial; those who responded declined to comment.

The two sides predict that the trial will last about six weeks, though Judge Brasel has set aside eight weeks for the proceedings. Jury selection is expected to continue into Tuesday, with opening statements likely Wednesday. 

Since the grand jury returned its first indictments in late 2022, 18 people have pleaded guilty. No other trial dates have been set, but prosecutors have indicated that they want to try Feeding Our Future founder Aimee Bock and her 12 co-defendants next.

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