Bag of cash doesn't stop jurors from convicting 5 of 7 defendants in $40 million food fraud scheme

MINNEAPOLIS — A jury convicted five Minnesota residents but acquitted two others on Friday for their roles in a scheme to steal more than $40 million that was supposed to feed children during the coronavirus pandemic. The case received widespread attention after someone tried to bribe a juror with a bag of $120,000 in cash.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel dismissed that juror before deliberations began, as well as another juror who was told about the bribe attempt. An FBI investigation of the attempted bribe continues, with no arrests announced.

Defense attorneys argued that the defendants provided real meals to real people.

Jurors, prosecutors and defendants gathered in court to hear the verdicts read before Chief U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz, who was standing in for Brasel because she was traveling on Friday.

The seven defendants are the first of 70 to stand trial in what federal prosecutors have called one of the nation’s largest COVID-19-related frauds, exploiting rules that were kept lax so that the economy wouldn’t crash during the pandemic. More than $250 million in federal funds was taken in the Minnesota scheme overall, with only about $50 million of it recovered, authorities said.

An Associated Press analysis published last June documented how thieves across the country plundered billions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Fraudsters potentially stole more than $280 billion, while another $123 billion was wasted or misspent. Combined, the loss represented 10% of the $4.3 trillion the government disbursed by last fall. Nearly 3,200 defendants have been charged and about $1.4 billion in stolen pandemic aid has been seized, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

The Minnesota case drew attention after the judge and attorneys for both sides learned about the bribe attempt. The judge ordered all seven defendants to surrender their cellphones so that investigators could look for evidence. She also ordered all seven taken into custody, and sequestered the jury.

According to an FBI agent’s affidavit, a woman rang the doorbell at the home of “Juror #52” in the Minneapolis suburb of Spring Lake Park the night before the case went to the jury. The juror wasn’t home, but a relative answered the door. The woman handed the relative a gift bag with a curly ribbon and images of flowers and butterflies and said it was a “present” for the juror.

“The woman told the relative to tell Juror #52 to say not guilty tomorrow and there would be more of that present tomorrow,” the agent wrote. “After the woman left, the relative looked in the gift bag and saw it contained a substantial amount of cash.”

The juror called police right after she got home and gave them the bag, which held stacks of $100, $50 and $20 bills totaling around $120,000. The woman who left the bag knew the juror’s first name, the agent said. Names of the jurors have not been made public, but the list of people with access to it included prosecutors, defense lawyers — and the seven defendants.

“It is highly likely that someone with access to the juror’s personal information was conspiring with, at a minimum, the woman who delivered the $120,000 bribe,” the FBI agent wrote, noting that the alleged fraud conspiracy at the heart of the trial involved electronic communications, including text messages and emails.

Federal charges of bribery of a juror and influencing a juror carry a maximum potential penalty of 15 years in prison.

The food aid came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was administered by the state, which funneled the meal money through nonprofit organizations and other partners. As rules were eased to speed support to the needy, the defendants allegedly produced invoices for meals never served, ran shell companies, laundered money, indulged in passport fraud and accepted kickbacks.

Federal prosecutors said just a fraction of the money the defendants received through the Feeding our Future nonprofit went to feed low-income kids, while the rest was spent on luxury cars, jewelry, travel and property. The seven collectively stole more than $40 million, they said.

These seven defendants are: Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Said Shafii Farah, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur. All were charged with wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering, and some faced additional charges in the 43-count indictment. Each had their own lawyers.

The common thread in their defenses was that investigators failed to dig deep enough to see they served real meals to real kids.

Eighteen other defendants pleaded guilty. Among those awaiting trial is Aimee Bock, the founder of Feeding our Future. She has maintained her innocence, saying she never stole and saw no evidence of fraud among her subcontractors.

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