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After second juror in Feeding Our Future trial excused, jury set to continue deliberations Wednesday

Wednesday June 5, 2024

Juror was replaced with an alternate. 

Defendant Said Shafii Farah, center, walks into U.S. District Court with attorneys Clayton Carlson, left, and Steve Schleicher, right, on April 24. LEILA NAVIDI, STAR TRIBUNE

A second juror in the first federal Feeding Our Future trial was excused Tuesday after hearing about an attempted bribe of another jury member.

Deliberating with an alternate, the jury did not reach a verdict as members considered the case for a second day.

On Sunday, a woman dropped off a gift bag of $120,000 in cash to the home of a 23-year-old juror and said the juror would receive more cash if she voted to acquit the defendants. The juror, who reported the incident to police, was excused.

On Tuesday, a second juror — a 25-year-old woman from Savage — said she heard about the attempted bribery from a family member. An alternate — a 30-year-old Andover man — replaced her as the jury weighs 41 charges against seven people accused of stealing money meant to feed needy children.

The verdict will be widely watched because it's the first trial in a broader case that's led to charges against 70 people since 2022, when the FBI began investigating meal program fraud. With $250 million allegedly stolen, prosecutors called it one of the largest pandemic fraud cases in the country.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel sequestered the jury Monday night after the attempted bribery, citing their safety. Brasel also added security to the courtroom, detained defendants and had an FBI agent confiscate their phones. Authorities are investigating the leak of jurors' names, which hadn't been publicly disclosed to anyone besides the attorneys.

The seven defendants, all tied to a Shakopee restaurant, received more than $40 million for 18 million meals, part of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that reimburse schools, nonprofits and day cares for feeding low-income children after school or during the summer.

Prosecutors allege defendants exploited the pandemic to get rich with phony invoices and rosters of made-up children's names. They called witnesses who saw no or few meals served, FBI agents and accountants who traced money to personal expenses.

"They saw the vulnerability of the program," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson said in his closing argument. "The money was being spent on anything but food."

Defense attorneys said they served real food to real kids, but said FBI investigators never searched some food sites. They argued prosecutors assumed criminal intent of Somali refugees who immigrated here, not understanding their culture of informal transactions based on trust and verbal agreements.

They also blamed nonprofits that oversaw food sites — Partners in Nutrition and Feeding Our Future — and sought to discredit the prosecution's key witness who testified about a "booming" fraud scheme of rampant bribes.

"When you paint with a very broad brush, you're able to paint over ... some inadequacies," defense attorney Patrick Cotter said.

Defense attorneys said in closing arguments that defendants spent money renting warehouses and other business costs. Attorney Andrew Birrell said defendants rapidly increased the number of meals by doling out groceries, such as a $10 bag of rice, enough for 160 meals.

The seven defendants are:

Abdiaziz Shafii Farah: The Savage 35-year-old co-owned Empire Cuisine & Market in Shakopee. Prosecutors called him the ringleader and said he spent federal money on gold jewelry, $1 million Prior Lake property, four cars and kickbacks to others. Birrell, his attorney, argued his client spent millions of dollars on food and was allowed to make a profit.

Mohamed Jama Ismail: The Savage 51-year-old co-owned Empire Cuisine. Cotter said he immigrated to the U.S. in 1998 and was focused on running the business, not meal programs.

Said Shafii Farah: Prosecutors said the Minneapolis 41-year-old, Farah's brother, pocketed more than $1 million and paid bribes. His attorney, Steve Schleicher, said Farah immigrated to the U.S. as a kid and started a wholesaler, but agents never searched the warehouse where they would've seen pallets of food.

Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin: The 33-year-old co-owned the wholesaler. His attorney Andrew Garvis said he had a minor role distributing food and the FBI didn't search his home or accuse him of lavish expenses.

Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff: The Burnsville 33-year-old was the only defendant to testify, saying he immigrated to the U.S. at 5 years old and was a Microsoft software engineer. His attorney Andrew Mohring said he didn't prepare any financial documents, just distributed food. Prosecutors say he pocketed more than $1 million and paid a bribe, which Mohring said was a legal loan.

Abdimajid Mohamed Nur: Prosecutors say he created and submitted fake invoices and started a shell company that received $900,000,
which he spent on an $11,000 Maldives honeymoon. The 23-year-old immigrated to the U.S. as a child, was a track star and is enlisted in the U.S. Army, and had a minor role in meal programs, his attorney Edward Sapone said.

Hayat Mohamed Nur: Nur's 27-year-old sister also created and submitted fake invoices, prosecutors said. Her attorney, Nicole Kettwick, said she played a small clerical role, did what bosses asked and was swept up in allegations simply by association.


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