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The first criminal trial in the sprawling Feeding Our Future case is about to start, more than two years after the FBI raided the nonprofit's offices and publicly revealed allegations of a $250 million fraud.

Prosecutors have called it one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the country and one of the largest such federal cases in state history.

Beginning Monday in downtown Minneapolis, U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel will convene the first joint trial in the case, which could last up to six weeks and involves seven defendants who were part of the first charges in September 2022.

The six men and one woman had ties to Empire Cuisine & Market in Shakopee, which enrolled in federal meal programs to feed needy children in April 2020. Collectively, the defendants received more than $40 million in federal reimbursements for claiming to serve more than 18 million meals to children across Minnesota — from Owatonna to Faribault to Savage — over the course of 18 months. They've been charged with wire fraud and money laundering, among other charges.

Defense attorneys have said in court documents that the defendants didn't knowingly or intentionally commit any crime or defraud anyone, arguing that they believed they were providing "real meals, to real people." The defendants' attorneys either declined to comment for this article or didn't return messages.

Overall, the case centers on U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded meal programs meant to feed low-income kids after school or during the summer. Across Minnesota, hundreds of meal distribution sites were overseen by "sponsors," like Feeding Our Future and others. Prosecutors have said defendants exploited loosened oversight and rules during the pandemic and submitted fake invoices that grossly inflated the number of meals served.

Instead, prosecutors allege defendants served little or no food, and used the federal money to buy lakeside houses, luxury cars and lavish trips.

"This is an extremely unique case," said Minneapolis attorney Joe Tamburino, who isn't involved. "It's a huge amount of money. Additionally, this was at a very vulnerable time for our whole country … at the height of the pandemic."

The case is also unusual for the number of people involved and the volume of court files. Since September 2022, 70 people have been charged or indicted and of those, 18 have pleaded guilty, one died and one is known to have fled the country. The grand jury has issued more than 600 subpoenas and there's more than 2.8 million pages of evidence, 40 hours of recordings, 10,000 files and eight terabytes of camera footage in the case, according to court documents.

Tamburino added that he's not surprised it's taken more than a year and a half since charges were filed for the first trial to start because of the extent of the allegations. "With this many defendants, I think you could see some twists and turns."

The FBI searched Twin Cities nonprofit Feeding our Future on Jan. 20, 2022.
The FBI searched Twin Cities nonprofit Feeding our Future on Jan. 20, 2022.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Joint trial starts Monday

This week's trial involves: Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, who was 33 and living in Savage when he was charged; Mohamed Jama Ismail, 51, who was living in Savage; Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, 23, who was living in Shakopee; Said Shafii Farah, who was 40 and living in Minneapolis; Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, who was 32 and living in Minneapolis; Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff, who was 31 and living in Bloomington; and Hayat Mohamed Nur, 27, who was living in Eden Prairie. Their organizations were sponsored by Feeding Our Future in St. Anthony and Partners in Nutrition in St. Paul.

  • Abdiaziz Farah and Ismail owned Empire Cuisine, a Shakopee restaurant that started in April 2020 and claimed to feed thousands of kids at a dozen or more sites and act as a food vendor for nearly 50 sites, prosecutors said.
  • Mahad Ibrahim, who was slated to go to trial Monday until it was postponed due to his attorneys being unavailable, ran Edina-based ThinkTechAct and Mind Foundry, and worked with Abdiaziz Farah, opening more than two dozen food sites statewide, from Willmar to Owatonna.
  • Aftin and Said Farah, the brother of Abdiaziz Farah, created Bushra Wholesalers, a food distribution company for Empire Cuisine, ThinkTechAct and other entities, in 2021.
  • Shariff, CEO of Afrique Hospitality Group, which started in 2021, operated a food distribution site in Bloomington and received funds from Empire and ThinkTechAct.
  • Prosecutors say Abdimajid Nur and his sister Hayat Nur created fake and fraudulent meal count sheets, invoices and attendance rosters.

The defendants used shell companies and payments to one another, such as for "consulting" fees, to launder the money, prosecutors said, or to pay bribes and kickbacks to others as part of what prosecutors said was a "pay-to-play" scheme.

For instance, prosecutors said Abdiaziz Farah used $1 million to write out a cashier's check for two lakefront lots on Prior Lake to build an 8,000-square-foot house.

Abdiaziz Farah and Ismail applied for new passports after theirs were seized by the FBI and have been charged with making false statements on their applications. Ismail, who was arrested before boarding a flight in 2022, has pleaded guilty to that passport charge.

Rise in meal programs

Prosecutors have said in court documents that the trial will show how defendants operated "sham food sites" across Minnesota and quickly expanded the fraud scheme.

They wrote that they'll show e-mails, travel documents, financial data and other records, and could call property managers, landlords and neighbors to testify that it would've been impossible to serve thousands of meals at parks or apartment complexes.

"Many of their purported food 'sites' were nothing more than inhospitable parking lots or derelict commercial spaces," prosecutors wrote.

Defense attorneys wrote in court documents that they'll present invoices, cell phone records, checks and other documents to prove that the defendants didn't knowingly defraud the government.

Feeding Our Future leader Aimee Bock will go on trial later this year or next year.
Feeding Our Future leader Aimee Bock will go on trial later this year or next year.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

This week's trial precedes the one that will involve Feeding Our Future leader Aimee Bock, which could take place later this year or next year.

Bock, who is white, has denied any wrongdoing, including denying that she received a kickback from a meal provider. She has said state leaders targeted her organization because the nonprofit worked largely with African immigrants and other people of color. In December, her attorney Kenneth Udoibok said in court filings that Bock didn't receive kickbacks and, even if she did, kickbacks aren't inherently fraudulent. He said Feeding Our Future charged an administrative fee to its sites, which is legal.

During the pandemic, the meal food programs ballooned, with Feeding Our Future growing to become one of the largest sponsors in Minnesota. In 2021, it received nearly $200 million, up from $3.4 million in 2019, while Partners in Nutrition received more than $200 million, up from $5.6 million in 2019.

What happens in this month's first trial could foreshadow or affect the other trials of bigger players in the scheme, said Joseph Daly, emeritus professor of law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. But it's going to be a complex case for the jury and public to follow, with so many people involved and so many financial documents. More than 500 potential witnesses have been listed by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Prosecutors will also have a difficult task to prove that defendants knew that they were defrauding the government, he said.

"It's not a slam dunk case at all [for federal prosecutors]," he said. Fraud cases are "hard to prove."