Crime, Law and Justice

Food fraud defendant testifies as others stay quiet

A courtrooms sketch
Seven defendants and their attorneys appear before Judge Nancy Brasel for their trial at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.
Cedric Hohnstadt

In a surprise move on Wednesday, one of the defendants in the Feeding Our Future trial took the stand in his own defense.

After four weeks of prosecution testimony, six of the seven people charged with stealing $47 million from federal child nutrition programs chose not to call any witnesses or testify themselves.

But Mukhtar Shariff took the opposite tack. Before Shariff testified late in the afternoon, his attorneys called eight witnesses to bolster their argument that Shariff's former company, Afrique Hospitality, was a legitimate business that served real food to real children during the COVID pandemic.

Federal prosecutors allege that Shariff and his co-defendants, who all have ties to a storefront restaurant in Shakopee, falsely claimed reimbursement for 18 million meals from two government food programs, funneled the proceeds through a series of shell companies, and spent the money on vehicles, real estate, and luxury items.

The alleged graft, the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s Office says, is part of of a much larger conspiracy to fleece taxpayers out of $250 million by exploiting rule waivers that allowed restaurants to participate in the meal programs. Of the 70 people charged in related cases, 18 have pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors allege that Shariff falsely claimed to have served as many as 3,500 meals per day at the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington and at Oak Grove Middle School nearby. Earlier in the trial, Dinna Wade-Ardley, who leads the Office Educational Equity at the Bloomington Public Schools, testified that Shariff’s claims appeared excessive.

Members and staff at Dar Al Farooq testified that they saw food that Shariff’s company purchased being distributed from a large box truck in the mosque’s parking lot throughout 2021.

Defense attorney Kaitlyn Falk asked Abdikadir Haji, who works at Dar Al Farooq’s school, for his reaction to “claims that food wasn’t served” at the mosque.

“People can say whatever they want,” Haji replied. “But I am the witness. Every Saturday there was a truck coming in front of Dar Al Farooq and people benefited, including me.” 

Other defense witnesses Wednesday included Jacob Steen, a land use attorney who helped Shariff get a zoning variance for Afrique Hospitality; businessman Yusuf Ali, who took over Afrique and restarted it as the Zawadi Cultural Center after Shariff was indicted; and Derek Czapiewski, a sales consultant at the food distributor Sysco, who testified that Shariff’s company purchased $1.6 million worth of food in 2021.

Prosecutors allege that while the defendants may have used some of the money from the nutrition programs to buy food, a large portion of it went to restaurant operations and not to children’s meals. The government also contends that Shariff used more than $900,000 in federal nutrition funds to build Afrique Hospitality.

Later Wednesday, under questioning from defense attorney Frederick Goetz, Shariff told jurors about emigrating to the U.S. from a Somali refugee camp in Kenya at age five as one of 17 siblings and half siblings, living apart from close family members as a small boy in Boston, and growing up to start multiple businesses while working in the Seattle tech industry.

Shariff, 33, waived his right to remain silent and is expected to face cross examination by prosecutors Thursday.

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