Feeding Our Future Trial: Jury Presses On After Second Juror’s Dismissal

On Tuesday, a 25-year-old juror from Savage revealed she’d heard about the bribery attempt through a family member. Consequently, a 30-year-old male alternate from Andover stepped in to deliberate on the 41 charges confronting seven individuals accused of embezzling funds intended to feed impoverished children.

This trial has garnered considerable attention as it’s the initial courtroom showdown in a larger case implicating 70 people since 2022, when the FBI began probing meal program fraud. Prosecutors have dubbed the alleged $250 million theft one of the largest instances of pandemic-era fraud in America.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel took measures Monday evening to sequester the jury for their safety after the bribery attempt surfaced. She bolstered courtroom security, detained the defendants, and had an FBI agent seize their phones. Authorities are investigating the breach of jurors’ identities, which had only been shared with the lawyers involved.

The seven accused, all associated with a Shakopee eatery, secured over $40 million for 18 million meals through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs designed to reimburse schools, nonprofits, and day cares that fed low-income kids after school or during summer breaks.

Prosecutors allege the defendants abused the pandemic crisis to enrich themselves, using fake invoices and lists of phantom children. They presented witnesses who observed few, if any, meals being served, FBI agents, and accountants who tracked the funds to personal purchases.

“They saw the program’s weak points,” stated Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson during closing arguments. “The money went everywhere but towards food.”

Defense lawyers countered by asserting that actual food was provided to real children, but claimed the FBI never thoroughly searched several food distribution sites. They suggested the prosecution misinterpreted the practices of Somali refugees, whose culture often emphasizes trust-based, informal transactions.

Furthermore, they criticized nonprofits like Partners in Nutrition and Feeding Our Future, which oversaw the food sites, and questioned the reliability of the prosecution’s star witness who spoke of widespread fraud and bribery.

“A broad-brush approach conceals finer details,” argued defense attorney Patrick Cotter.

Defense teams maintained that the defendants incurred legitimate business expenses, such as renting warehouses. Attorney Andrew Birrell explained that they provided groceries, citing a $10 bag of rice that could feed 160 people.

The seven accused are:

Abdiaziz Shafii Farah: This 35-year-old Savage resident co-owned Empire Cuisine & Market in Shakopee. Prosecutors labeled him the mastermind, alleging he spent federal funds on gold, a $1 million property in Prior Lake, cars, and kickbacks. His lawyer, Birrell, argued he used millions for food and was entitled to profit.

Mohamed Jama Ismail: At 51, this Savage co-owner of Empire Cuisine emigrated in 1998. His attorney, Cotter, stated he concentrated on business operations rather than meal programs.

Said Shafii Farah: The 41-year-old Minneapolis man and brother of Abdiaziz allegedly pocketed over $1 million and paid bribes. His attorney, Steve Schleicher, stated Farah moved to the U.S. as a child, started a wholesale business, and wasn’t subject to warehouse searches that might have shown stored food.

Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin: This 33-year-old co-owned the wholesale business. His attorney, Andrew Garvis, claimed he played a minor role in food distribution, with no home searches or accusations of extravagant spending.

Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff: The Burnsville 33-year-old testified, noting he moved to the U.S. at age five and is a Microsoft software engineer. His attorney, Andrew Mohring, said he only helped distribute food and didn’t handle financial documentation. Prosecutors claim he pocketed over $1 million and paid a bribe, which Mohring defended as a lawful loan.

Abdimajid Mohamed Nur: Allegedly responsible for fake invoices and launching a shell company that received $900,000, Nur reportedly spent $11,000 on a Maldives honeymoon. The 23-year-old emigrated as a child, excelled in track, and serves in the U.S. Army. His lawyer, Edward Sapone, emphasized Nur’s minor role in the schemes.

Hayat Mohamed Nur: This 27-year-old is accused of generating and submitting false invoices. Her lawyer, Nicole Kettwick, argued she was merely performing clerical tasks directed by her superiors and was wrongly ensnared in the allegations.

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