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Did six Twin Cities men and a woman brazenly steal money from programs feeding kids in need, as prosecutors allege, or were they operating growing businesses with informal bookkeeping, as their attorneys claim?

Those are the conflicting arguments jurors have heard over a month of testimony in the Feeding Our Future trial. In the last four weeks, federal prosecutors have displayed hundreds of pages of financial records and child nutrition program forms, aiming to show that the seven defendants tied to a Shakopee restaurant defrauded the government of millions of dollars by creating shell companies, rosters of fake children's names and inflated meal claims.

This week, prosecutors will rest their case and defense attorneys will start calling witnesses who received the meals and their own experts — including a former IRS agent, a former FBI forensic accountant and a University of Minnesota professor — to make the case that their clients provided real food to real children across Minnesota. They plan to show jurors reams of paperwork, as well as photos of pallets of food and videos of meal distributions.

The high-profile trial — the first in a broader fraud investigation that's led to charges against 70 people — has revealed new details in what prosecutors say is one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the country, totaling more than $250 million.

Prosecutors have called more than 30 witnesses, ranging from FBI and IRS agents and accountants who investigated the allegations, to bankers and meal program experts, witnesses from across Minnesota who saw few to no meals distributed, and a former Feeding Our Future employee who testified about a "booming" fraud scheme known for rampant kickbacks and bribes.

Prosecutors showed the jury hundreds of pages of checks and bank records, meal program forms and dozens of emails and text messages between the defendants, aiming to prove that defendants submitted phony or duplicate food invoices, rosters of made-up names and payments disguised as "consulting" fees.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools, day cares and nonprofits for feeding low-income children after school and during the summer. Instead, prosecutors said, defendants used the meal programs as "their own endless ATM," spending the money on lavish expenses, including a $1 million lakefront Prior Lake property, luxury cars and an $11,000 vacation to a Maldives ocean villa.

Last week, two FBI forensic accountants testified for four days about their extensive work tracing a complicated paper trail of 300 bank accounts and other records, revealing that about $3 million out of $30 million sent to the restaurant at the center of the case — Empire Cuisine and Market — went to food purchases. Some of it supplied the restaurant with food to sell rather than free meals for kids, FBI accountant Pauline Roase testified.

Defendant Abdiaziz Shafii Farah walks into U.S District Court during the first Feeding Our Future case to go to trial in Minneapolis.
Defendant Abdiaziz Shafii Farah walks into U.S District Court during the first Feeding Our Future case to go to trial in Minneapolis.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

On Friday, FBI accountant Lacra Blackwell testified she traced $41 million in federal money received by defendants back to $8 million in real estate, new cars, Timberwolves tickets and other purchases, mostly derived from federal funds.

Defense attorneys countered in their cross examination of Roase that bank records also prove their clients spent money on costs associated with running growing businesses, including payroll for employees, transportation of meals and warehouse rentals. They will cross-examine Blackwell on Tuesday.

The defendants — Said Shafii Farah, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur — were charged in 2022 with 43 counts, including wire fraud and money laundering. They received more than $40 million for claiming to serve 18 million meals at 50 food sites from Rochester to St. Cloud.

Since the trial started on April 22, the seven defense teams have argued in opening statements and cross examinations that the government's case involves "sweeping conspiracy allegations" based on speculation and suspicion. They've reiterated that their clients served food and earned a fair profit.

"He worked very hard to follow the contracts and he took enormous financial risks to be part of the food program," defense attorney Andrew Birrell said in his opening statements about his client, Abdiaziz Farah of Savage, who started Empire Cuisine.

Defense attorneys have shown witnesses photos of bags of groceries that defendants gave out, stocked with cereal, juice, potatoes and other produce matching food invoices. They also displayed photos of people lined up outside a Minneapolis event venue to get food.

They've sought to cast doubt on the thoroughness of the FBI investigation, blasting investigators for not visiting food sites to verify if meals were in fact served.

Law enforcement raided a Twin Cities nonprofit Feeding our Future site in St. Anthony in January 2022.
Law enforcement raided a Twin Cities nonprofit Feeding our Future site in St. Anthony in January 2022.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Defense attorneys also have questioned some witnesses about how they were just contacted by prosecutors before the trial started and asked to recall details from two to three years ago. They've sought to discredit the former employee who testified because he could get a shorter prison sentence for cooperating with authorities, and questioned other witnesses' lack of knowledge about the meal programs.

Defense attorneys have also scrutinized state leaders and investigators about their lack of knowledge of East African business culture since the defendants immigrated to the United States. Attorney Andrew Mohring, who represents Shariff, asked Roase last week if she was aware East African cultures have informal transactions based on trust and tribal affiliations.

"Sometimes things aren't written down," Steve Schleicher, who represents Farah's brother, vendor Said Farah, added in his questioning of her Friday.

Roase agreed.

So the financial data may only tell a portion of the story? he asked.

"It may not tell the whole picture, but it tells a lot," Roase answered.

Growing food programs

The defendants' food sites were largely overseen by St. Paul nonprofit Partners in Nutrition (also known as Partners in Quality Care), as well as St. Anthony nonprofit Feeding Our Future, which is at the center of the case.

Some defense attorneys have sought to distance their clients from the allegations. They've shifted blame to the two women who led Partners in Nutrition and Feeding Our Future, and the Minnesota Department of Education, which administers the funding. If the Education Department or USDA had concerns, why didn't they claw back funds or stop approving reimbursements, defense attorneys have repeatedly asked witnesses.

The Education Department was entangled in lawsuits for years with Partners in Nutrition and Feeding Our Future. In early 2020, the department had concerns about "unexplained growth" in reimbursements.

Feeding Our Future sued the agency in 2020 for not approving meal sites. In 2021, the Education Department stopped its payments, but a Ramsey County judge said he saw no regulations giving the state the authority to do so at that point. The Education Department restarted payments and alerted the FBI about its concerns.

Another central issue in the trial: USDA waivers that relaxed oversight and rules in the pandemic to quickly get food to children when schools shuttered. Investigators argued the waivers made the programs vulnerable to abuse, such as fewer monitoring visits to make sure programs were operating properly.

Defense attorneys countered that those relaxed rules allowed defendants' for-profit restaurants to temporarily participate in the programs and dole out seven days' worth of groceries at once, instead of the usual hot meals served in person that rapidly increased the number of meals their clients served. They added that defendants didn't need to check IDs and used a clicker to count the number of people who picked up meals.