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Bag of cash doesn’t stop jurors from convicting 5 of 7 defendants in $40 million food fraud scheme

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A jury convicted five Minnesota residents and acquitted two others on Friday for their roles in a scheme to steal more than $40 million from a program that was supposed to feed children during the coronavirus pandemic. The case received widespread attention after someone tried to bribe a juror with a bag of $120,000 in cash.

That juror was dismissed before deliberations began, and a second juror who was told about it also was dismissed. An FBI investigation of the attempted bribe continues, with no arrests announced.

After the verdicts were read, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Thompson called the attempted bribe “an attack on our criminal justice system” and told reporters that authorities would investigate with all of their resources. He made no other comment on that issue, and expressed satisfaction at the convictions in the fraud case.

“They lied and they fraudulently claimed to be feeding millions of meals to children in Minnesota during COVID. The defendants took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to defraud the state of Minnesota and to steal tens of millions of dollars,” Thompson said. “This conduct was not just criminal, it was depraved and brazen.”

Defense attorneys argued at trial that their clients provided real meals to real people.

The seven people were the first of 70 to stand trial in what federal prosecutors have called one of the nation’s largest COVID-19-related frauds, exploiting rules that were kept lax so that the economy wouldn’t crash during the pandemic. More than $250 million in federal funds was taken in the Minnesota scheme overall, with only about $50 million of it recovered, authorities said.

The food aid came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was administered by the state, which funneled the meal money through nonprofit organizations and other partners. As rules were eased to speed support to the needy, the defendants allegedly produced invoices for meals never served, ran shell companies, laundered money, indulged in passport fraud and accepted kickbacks.

Federal prosecutors said just a fraction of the money the defendants received through the Feeding our Future nonprofit went to feed low-income kids, while the rest was spent on luxury cars, jewelry, travel and property.

The defendants in this trial faced a mix of multiple counts including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and federal programs bribery. Each defendant was charged based on their alleged role, and each had their own attorney. In the end, the jurors delivered a split verdict.

Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur were found guilty on most of the counts against them. Prosecutors have described Abdiaziz Farah as a ringleader of the seven and faced the most counts; he was convicted on 23 of 24 counts against him.

Said Shafii Farah and Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin were acquitted on all counts they faced. Aftin was charged with three counts, the least of all seven defendants.

Andrew Garvis, an attorney for Aftin, said afterward that the case was complex.

“The government had a lot of evidence, and the jury took their time in consideration,” Garvis said. “That’s what we want in the system, so we appreciate it.”

Steven Schleicher, Said Farah’s attorney, said his client is grateful to have been acquitted.

Attorneys for Abdimajid Nur, Hayat Nur, Abdiaziz Farah and Ismail did not immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment. Frederick Goetz, an attorney for Shariff, declined to comment.

The common thread in the defense arguments was that investigators failed to dig deep enough to see they served real meals to real kids.

Sentencing hearings will be scheduled at a later date.

An Associated Press analysis published last June documented how thieves across the country plundered billions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Fraudsters potentially stole more than $280 billion, while another $123 billion was wasted or misspent. Combined, the loss represented 10% of the $4.3 trillion the government disbursed by last fall. Nearly 3,200 people have been charged and about $1.4 billion in stolen pandemic aid has been seized, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

After the juror reported the bribe attempt in the Minnesota case, the judge ordered all seven defendants to surrender their cellphones so that investigators could look for evidence. She also ordered all seven taken into custody, and sequestered the jury.

According to an FBI agent’s affidavit, a woman rang the doorbell at the home of “Juror #52” in the Minneapolis suburb of Spring Lake Park the night before the case went to the jury. A relative answered the door and was handed a gift bag with a curly ribbon and images of flowers and butterflies. The woman said it was a “present” for the juror.

“The woman told the relative to tell Juror #52 to say not guilty tomorrow and there would be more of that present tomorrow,” the agent wrote. “After the woman left, the relative looked in the gift bag and saw it contained a substantial amount of cash.”

The juror called police right after she got home and gave them the bag, which held stacks of $100, $50 and $20 bills totaling around $120,000.

The woman who left the bag knew the juror’s first name, the agent said. Names of the jurors have not been made public, but the list of people with access to it included prosecutors, defense lawyers — and the seven defendants.

“It is highly likely that someone with access to the juror’s personal information was conspiring with, at a minimum, the woman who delivered the $120,000 bribe,” the FBI agent wrote, noting that the alleged fraud conspiracy at the heart of the trial involved electronic communications, including text messages and emails.

Days later, while the remaining jurors were deliberating, FBI agents searched the home of Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, according to a neighbor who witnessed the search and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. The FBI confirmed agents were in the city where Farah lives, but did not elaborate. It was not clear if the search was connected to the bribery investigation.

Federal charges of bribery of a juror and influencing a juror carry a maximum potential penalty of 15 years in prison.

Eighteen other people pleaded guilty in the larger $250 million fraud scheme. Among those awaiting trial is Aimee Bock, the founder of Feeding our Future. She has maintained her innocence, saying she never stole and saw no evidence of fraud among her subcontractors.

By MICHAEL GOLDBERG and STEVE KARNOWSKI
Associated Press

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