Jurors in Feeding Our Future case see defendants’ long text trail

A courtrooms sketch
The seven defendants in the first Feeding our Future trial appear in a Minneapolis federal courtroom along with their attorneys.
Cedric Hohnstadt

Jurors in federal court in Minneapolis were shown hundreds of WhatsApp text messages in which operators of food distribution sites allegedly discussed how to divvy up money that they stole from government child nutrition programs.

In early 2022, the FBI got warrants to search the offices of the nonprofit Feeding Our Future and two dozen other locations connected to the alleged fraud, including the homes of several of the defendants on trial now.

They recovered many electronic devices, including cell phones. FBI digital forensics expert Vicki Klemz explained to jurors on Monday how she extracted the data from those phones using special software.

IRS criminal investigator Brian Pitzen spent hours on the stand Tuesday and Wednesday as he and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Thompson read the messages aloud and displayed them on computer monitors for the jury.

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They focused on WhatsApp exchanges from 2021 between Abdiaziz Farah, co-owner of Empire Cuisine and Market, the small Shakopee restaurant that’s at the heart of the trial, and Mahad Ibrahim, who ran a nonprofit called the ThinkTechAct Foundation.

Prosecutors say Ibrahim used his organization to operate fake meal distribution sites. Ibrahim was to face trial alongside the seven other defendants this month, but his lawyer was unavailable.

In the messages that Thompson showed the jury, Farah and Ibrahim frequently discussed how they would split up the money from Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition, two Twin Cities nonprofits that submitted food reimbursement claims to the Minnesota Department of Education on behalf of meal site operators.

According to one exchange from early 2021, Ibrahim allegedly asks when to expect the “February payout,” because he has a real estate bill coming due. In response, Farah notes that around $200,000 is on the way.

In another exchange from April of that year, Farah is alleged to have written, “Bro the next multi legit millionaires will be me and you.” Recounting a phone call where MDE officials raised concerns about fraud, Ibrahim allegedly referred to them using an expletive, adding that they are “saying that some of our sites are straight fictions.”

Jurors also viewed dozens of pages of WhatsApp messages between Abdiaziz Farah and his brother Said Farah, who’s also on trial. The two allegedly exchanged similar messages about divvying up the food payments and many of their messages included images of banking documents and invoices.

The jury heard testimony Tuesday from Dinna Wade-Ardley, the educational equity director for Bloomington Public Schools.

Wade-Ardley talked about working with her colleagues in the district to deliver meals to children during the pandemic. Around the same time, Wade-Ardley said she accepted an offer from one of the defendants, Mukhtar Shariff, to distribute bulk food to families on Saturdays at Oak Grove Middle School.

She testified that food was distributed. And on cross examination, Shariff’s defense attorney showed jurors video of people lined up to receive it.

But prosecutors showed Wade-Ardley some of the invoices and meal counts that the defendants allegedly submitted for reimbursement — including one for $192,000 from Shariff’s company Afrique Hospitality Group for tens of thousands of meals served in a single month at the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center nearby.

Wade-Ardley testified with fewer than 10,000 students in the Bloomington schools, the numbers of meals that the defendants allegedly claimed to have served were implausible.

She also also said she and her students were taken advantage of and that she regretted sending an email vouching for Shariff.  Wade-Ardley added that the money the defendants are alleged to have stolen under the guise of helping kids could have provided an enormous amount of help for children in need.

The prosecution will continue presenting its witnesses Friday after a break Thursday, and will likely rest sometime next week. After that attorneys for the seven defendants will present their case.

In their opening statements April 29, the defense team presented their clients as hard-working immigrants from east Africa who took financial risks to participate in the meal programs and served “real food to real kids.”

The seven defendants in this trial are alleged to have stolen $47 million in what prosecutors say was a much larger conspiracy to steal $250 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child and Adult Care and Summer Food Service Programs, which MDE operates on the state level.

The U.S. Attorney’s office has charged 70 people since September 2022, and 18 have pleaded guilty.