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A St. Paul nonprofit leader pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal criminal charges in the Feeding Our Future case, becoming the 17th defendant to admit guilt in the sprawling fraud litigation.

Sharon Ross, 53, of Big Lake, Minn., former director of House of Refuge in St. Paul, was charged in March as one of the last of 60 people to be charged in the case so far. But her trial was scheduled for Jan. 22, making her the first defendant slated to go to court this month.

Under a plea agreement, Ross pleaded guilty to wire fraud, and additional charges were dismissed. She could face 37 to 46 months in prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

The FBI in January 2022 raided Feeding Our Future, a St. Anthony nonprofit that oversaw hundreds of meal distribution sites. Prosecutors have said it was one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the country, involving more than $250 million. As of March 2023, the federal government had seized more than $66 million in the case.

Ross enrolled House of Refuge in 2021 in the federal program that reimburses schools and nonprofits for providing meals to low-income kids after school and during the summer. House of Refuge received $2.4 million in reimbursements from 2021 to 2022 for reportedly serving 900,000 meals over a six-month period, according to prosecutors. But little of that money was spent on food and only a fraction of the meals were served, prosecutors said.

Instead, Ross submitted fraudulent invoices and attendance rosters with fake names of children, prosecutors said. She split the money with her food vendor and used most of it to cover expenses for herself and her family — taking trips to Florida and Las Vegas, renting a Timberwolves suite and buying a home in Willernie, near Mahtomedi.

Upon pleading guilty, Ross agreed to forfeit the Willernie home and pay $2 million in restitution to the federal government.

When asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson why she was pleading guilty, Ross said the evidence shows she's guilty. After the half-hour hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel, Ross and her attorney Earl Gray declined to comment to reporters.

Ross was charged in 2016 with theft in Ramsey County and convicted of a misdemeanor for submitting fraudulent expenses to her employer.

Fraud scheme

Like many of the defendants in the Feeding Our Future cases, Ross launched her organization in 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools closed and the need for food assistance shot up dramatically.

The pandemic also spurred federal waivers that loosened oversight, including limiting on-site monitoring of food sites to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Prosecutors say Ross and other defendants took advantage of that lack of oversight, grossly inflating meal counts to enrich themselves.

About three weeks after the FBI's investigation went public in 2022, a Star Tribune reporter visited House of Refuge, which operated out of a large warehouse once used by a glass manufacturer.

Ross and her food vendor, Brava Café owner Hanna Marekegn, showed the reporter bags of food they said they were distributing to families that night. With their funding cut off by the FBI investigation and 29 employees laid off, Ross said she was owed thousands of dollars for meals and would be forced to end the program, leaving children without food assistance.

"We can verify all of our numbers," Ross said then. "Somebody can say they think our numbers are inflated but we have documented proof of the number of children that we're serving."

Feeding Our Future executive director Aimee Bock accused Ross and Marekegn of fraud and overbilling, with Bock's lawyer noting that they couldn't be providing 21,000 meals daily, seven days a week, which would be "enough children to exceed the capacity of Target Field."

Ross and Marekegn said they partnered with 14 churches and were giving out "meal packs" — seven days' worth of snacks and dinners such as macaroni and black beans. They countered that their contract was canceled when Marekegn declined to give a kickback to a Feeding Our Future employee.

Ross and Marekegn went to work with a St. Paul sponsor called Partners in Quality Care, also known as Partners in Nutrition. No one associated with Partners has been criminally charged, and the organization hasn't been named in court documents. But the Minnesota Department of Education — which has oversight of the meals programs — suspended its payments in 2022 after some of Partners' subcontractors were named in search warrants.

Ross told the Star Tribune in 2022 that both of the sponsoring nonprofits inspected their sites "and we passed every one of those inspections."

In October 2022, Marekegn was one of the first defendants in the case to plead guilty, and agreed to pay more than $5 million in restitution; she hasn't yet been sentenced. Bock has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges and has denied any wrongdoing. Her trial date hasn't yet been scheduled, but other defendants' trials are slated for later this spring.