Juror in charity fraud case received $120,000 bag

On the eve of the closing day of a federal fraud trial in Minneapolis, a woman drove to a juror’s home in a Mazda with a Hallmark gift bag adorned with butterflies and flowers. Inside were wads of $100, $50 and $20 bills totaling approximately $120,000.

The juror in the case, in which the defendants are accused of using a charity to steal millions of dollars, was not home Sunday evening when the unusual package arrived. But someone close to the juror got hold of it, according to the account of an FBI agent.

“This is for Juror 52,” the woman said, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Thompson, according to a report in the Sahan Journal, an online news organization. “Tell her there will be another bag for her if she votes to accept.”

When the juror, a 23-year-old woman, returned home and learned about the deposited money, she called local police, who reported the bribery attempt to federal officials.

On Monday, the juror was dismissed and prosecutors asked the judge for permission to seize the cellphones of the seven people on trial as investigators worked to discover who orchestrated the apparent attempt to bribe a juror.

This revelation disrupted the trial. The defendants are accused of stealing $41 million from government programs meant to feed hungry children, through a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Prosecutors accused them — and dozens of others — of stealing $250 million by pretending to serve nonexistent meals to nonexistent children.

So far, prosecutors have charged 70 people in the case, 18 of whom have pleaded guilty. The government recovered about $60 million by seizing bank accounts, real estate and vehicles.

In recent days, defense attorneys for the defendants have argued that their clients have provided meals to many people in need during the pandemic. They also sought to discredit a government witness who participated in the scheme and cooperated with investigators in hopes of obtaining a more lenient sentence.

In a search warrant application submitted to the court Monday, Travis Wilmer, an FBI agent, noted that the identities of the jurors were known to the defendants.

“Here, it is very likely that someone with access to the juror’s personal information was conspiring, at a minimum, with the woman who delivered the $120,000 bribe,” Mr. Wilmer wrote. “Indeed, in this particular case, these defendants and other conspirators used electronic communication, including text messages and emails, to communicate about their illicit activities.”

The current case is the first related to this scandal to go to trial. After six weeks, the trial comes to an end. Defense attorneys presented their closing arguments Monday and the jury is currently deliberating the case. In court Monday, defense attorneys said they were troubled by the allegations, according to courtroom accounts.

In response to that revelation, U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel questioned the remaining jurors and alternates about whether they had been contacted in the same way, according to a Star Tribune story. Everyone said no, the newspaper reports.

Police in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota. — where the bribe attempt took place — referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Judge Brasel ordered Monday that the defendants turn over their phones to FBI agents who would try to find evidence of the origins of the bribe attempt. And after closing arguments concluded and the jury was instructed on its deliberations, at the request of prosecutors, the judge ordered the defendants detained.

Judge Brasel also ordered that jury members remain isolated from other people for the remainder of the trial, a rare step taken in high-profile cases in which jury tampering is a concern.

The Sahan Journal reported that the juror who was the intended recipient of the bribe was not in court Monday. She appeared to be the only person of color on the jury, the outlet reported. The seven accused are Somali immigrants: Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Said Shafii Farah, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur.

FBI agents questioned the youth Monday morning and took notice of the bag of cash at the Spring Lake Park Police Department. Authorities have not revealed whether they learned the identity of the woman who handed over the money.

Corrupting a guilty party is a crime.

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