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A Twin Cities man named Haji Salad had just avoided deportation to Somalia when he learned of a promising way to make money.

He started a company called Haji's Kitchen in Brooklyn Park and began taking in millions of dollars in federal funds for a program to feed poor children.

The FBI says it was all a scam. Salad was indicted in September on charges that he pocketed $5.9 million in federal money intended for the needy — more than all but one of 50 defendants in the FBI's massive investigation into Minnesota meal fraud during the pandemic, court documents show.

The government alleges that his company "fraudulently received" $16 million in public funds — $11.3 million from nonprofit Partners in Nutrition — and that to cover his tracks, Salad and his co-conspirators submitted falsified attendance records, inflated meal count forms and fake invoices.

Federal investigators first targeted Salad, now 32, a dozen years ago on discredited sex-trafficking allegations. Court filings depict a man who constantly found trouble and had a long string of arrests since he was a teenager, but also languished for years in custody on questionable charges.

"Haji was framed and locked up for over four years awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges that were utterly fabricated," his attorney, Paul Applebaum, said in a statement. Salad lost a civil rights lawsuit against the police involved, and "the ordeal destroyed and disenfranchised him, undoubtedly adding to the temptation so many others succumbed to when the COVID food program came along."

Salad was 11 years old when he came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia in 2001. Seven years later, he met a troubled high-schooler, and his relationship with her would derail his early adulthood.

Salad assumed that the woman, identified in court records only as Jane Doe 2, was about the same age. In 2009, he traveled with her and others to Nashville, and some other men on the trip had sex with Jane Doe 2. She was a habitual runaway, and after relatives reported her missing, the group was briefly taken into custody by the authorities.

The following year, Salad and 28 other people, all but one of Somali heritage, were indicted on FBI charges that they were in a juvenile sex trafficking ring that victimized Jane Doe 2 and others. He was locked up in pretrial detention until early 2013, when he was let out on electronic monitoring for about one year until he violated conditions of his release. Salad was sent back — even though by then six co-defendants were acquitted by a jury and three more were acquitted on post-trial motions.

Salad didn't win his freedom again until 2016, when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the sex trafficking claim was likely a fictitious story and the two primary witnesses, including Jane Doe 2, were "unworthy of belief."

The appeals court singled out St. Paul police officer Heather Weyker, a member of the FBI task force that pursued the case, saying a district court opined that she had "likely exaggerated or fabricated important aspects of this story." Meanwhile, the court noted, Jane Doe 2 had lied about being a juvenile, among other things.

Prosecutors dropped charges against Salad and the remaining defendants. Salad, then represented by Applebaum, and nearly two dozen others charged in the case sued Weyker and the police department for violating their constitutional rights.

"Salad suffered a staggering loss of liberty in the prime of his life, and will continue to suffer from grave emotional distress for the rest of his life, as well as reduced earning capacity, lost income, and additional damages," his lawsuit stated. He argued that while "prisons offer vocational and educational opportunities, and allow for recreation and exercise, the jail in which Salad was housed contained no such opportunities for self-betterment."

Salad and other plaintiffs lost their suits, in large part because Weyker had substantial immunity as a local officer deputized on a federal task force.

He had only been free for a year and a half when the feds came calling again.

In late 2017, Salad was charged with a felony of aiding an offender. Within weeks, he was taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody for deportation proceedings. By this time, Salad was a lawful permanent resident who was permitted to live here under the condition that he did not commit certain criminal offenses.

Without a conviction yet on the aiding an offender charge, ICE argued that Salad should be sent back to Somalia due to several older convictions for possessing burglary tools, giving a false name to a peace officer and making terroristic threats.

An immigration judge ordered him removed to Somalia in January 2019. Salad appealed. That summer, he was released after U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois decided that his detention for 17 months was longer than a reasonable amount of time to go without a hearing on whether or not he was a danger to the community or likely to flee.

The status of Salad's deportation case is unclear. Salad argued in court filings that his lawyers had misadvised him of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty. In February 2020, Hennepin County prosecutors dropped the aiding an offender charge.

By then, Salad had spent years locked up on charges that were never sustained, and shut out of the ability to earn money.

That same year, he opened Haji's Kitchen out of a warehouse in Brooklyn Park.

Salad agreed to provide food to sites participating in the Federal Child Nutrition Program, with the understanding that his business would be reimbursed with government funds for the cost of meals it actually gave to the public. Federal waivers loosened regulations and oversight when COVID-19 hit, paving the way for what the government describes as a massive fraud. Salad claimed in invoices and other paperwork that Haji's Kitchen served 15.7 million meals to various program sites between 2020 and 2022.

The indictment alleges that was false and lays out a different story:

"In reality," the indictment reads, "Salad provided only a minimal portion of the food and meals for which he claimed reimbursements." For instance, he submitted an invoice to a program site in the small town of Pelican Rapids falsely claiming to have supplied $293,000 worth of food for 140,000 meals and snacks there from Oct. 14 to 31, 2021.

The FBI also says Salad used $2.3 million in meal funds to purchase real estate and cars, including a Mercedes GLE Coupe and Range Rover.

Around August 2021, Salad created Halal Foods LLC and gave the impression it was involved in the food business when it was really just a shell company "to further the scheme to defraud and to launder money." Salad and a handful of co-conspirators used bank accounts that were pass-throughs to receive and further disburse fraudulent proceeds. But Applebaum, his attorney, said it's worth noting that instead of hiding the misappropriated funds, the money was still in Salad's accounts when they were frozen by law enforcement.

Salad is also one of the few of those indicted who aren't accused of bribing their way into the conspiracy, according to charges. Neither he nor any of his associates have been accused of paying bribes or kickbacks to anyone affiliated with Partners in Nutrition, which paid millions to Haji's Kitchen.

Salad landed on the cops' radar again while he was running the alleged scam — he was charged in Wright County with credit card fraud in November 2020. But as the FBI's meal fraud probe intensified, local prosecutors dropped their own case against Salad in July.

He was arraigned on Sept. 20 on charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and money laundering, and released on bond. This month, his co-conspirator Anab Awad pleaded guilty to fraudulently claiming $11.2 million in federal nutrition funds, including $199,000 from Salad, one of her food vendors.

Staff writer Jeff Meitrodt contributed to this story.