Crime, Law and Justice

FBI number crunchers track taxpayer cash to house, vehicle purchases in Feeding Our Future trial

Two men walk into a courthouse
Attorney Edward V. Sapone and 21-year-old defendant Abdimajid Mohamed Nur enter the U.S. District Courthouse in Minneapolis on April 22.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The final witness for the prosecution in the Feeding Our Future trial told jurors how she traced the defendants’ alleged purchases of vehicles, property and airline tickets back to taxpayer-funded child nutrition programs.

Seven Twin Cities-area defendants face federal charges, for allegedly stealing $47 million in meal funds by exploiting pandemic-era rule changes that allowed restaurants to participate the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which are operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed on the state level by the Minnesota Department of Education.

In testimony Friday, FBI forensic accountant Lacra Blackwell focused on the money laundering counts that the defendants face. Blackwell showed jurors a series of flowcharts that traced funds from the programs via the nonprofits Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition to the defendants’ businesses.

Blackwell and Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Ebert showed the jury checks that the defendants allegedly wrote to property title companies and vehicle dealerships.

In one example, defendant Mohamed Ismail is alleged to have paid off the last $137,000 of his mortgage with public money paid to his Shakopee restaurant based on fraudulent reimbursement requests for kids’ meals. Blackwell traced the cash to Ismail’s personal account, then to his mortgage company.

Jurors also heard about how Ismail’s business partner, Said Farah, allegedly purchased four new vehicles over four months in 2021 in a similar way, including a Tesla and a Porsche.

Blackwell is the last of 33 prosecution witnesses to testify. The others included apartment managers who said they saw few signs of people at their buildings distributing meals to children during the pandemic.

A former employee of Feeding Our Future who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government testified two weeks ago about how he helped others set up fake meal sites. Jurors also heard from 10 investigators, including FBI and IRS agents and the forensic accountants who analyzed tens of thousands of pages of financial records.

Even after viewing page after page of bank statements, cashier’s checks, invoices, meal count sheets and reimbursement claims, the nine women and nine men hearing the case appear to be paying close attention to the testimony.

At one point they asked U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel for a copy of the indictment so they could more easily track the charges each defendant is facing.

After jurors had left the courtroom briefly Thursday while the attorneys were discussing a legal matter, Brasel said she was “impressed with the caliber of the attentiveness of this jury,” and pointed out that several jurors were taking copious notes. Because the trial was planned to last six weeks, Brasel selected six alternate jurors to sit among the 12 who will ultimately deliver the verdicts.

The defense attorneys’ lines of questioning during cross examination previewed their key argument that the seven defendants ran legitimate businesses that served real food to real children.

Andrew Mohring — who represents Afrique Hospitality owner Mukhtar Shariff — showed jurors a $38,710 invoice from the food distributor Sysco. Documents from Sysco showed purchases of hundreds of cases of apple juice and orange drink.

On Thursday, Mohring asked Pauline Roase, another FBI forensic accountant, if this is a significant account of money. But Roase replied: “In the grand scheme of things, no.”

Defense attorney Patrick Cotter later showed jurors a $5,400 Sysco invoice for milk.

Roase testified that of $30 million in child nutrition program money deposited in Empire Cuisine and Market bank accounts, just $3 million went to food purchases. And she noted that much of this food was for the restaurant; items such as coffee could not be served to children.

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