Jurors convict 5 defendants in $40 million Minnesota food fraud scheme

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

That juror was dismissed before deliberations began, and a second juror, informed of the bribe attempt, was also dismissed. An FBI investigation into this bribe attempt continues, with no arrests announced.

The seven defendants are the first of 70 to go to trial in what federal prosecutors have called one of the nation’s largest COVID-19 frauds, exploiting rules that remained lax so the economy would not collapse. not collapse during the pandemic. More than $250 million in federal funds were recovered under Minnesota’s program, of which only about $50 million was recovered, officials said.

The defendants faced a mix of multiple counts, including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and federal bribery schemes. It ended with a split verdict.

Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur were found guilty of most of the charges against them.

Said Shafii Farah and Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin were acquitted of all charges against them.

Defense attorneys argued the defendants provided real meals to real people.

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

The Minnesota case gained attention after the judge and lawyers for both sides learned of the bribe attempt. The judge ordered the seven defendants to hand over their cell phones so investigators could search for evidence. She also ordered the detention of the seven people and sequestered the jury.

According to an FBI agent’s affidavit, a woman rang the doorbell at the home of “Juror No. 52” in Spring Lake Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, the night before the case was sent to the jury. . The neighbor was not at home, but a relative opened the door. The woman handed the relative a gift bag with a curly ribbon and pictures of flowers and butterflies and said it was a “gift” for the juror.

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

The juror called police right after she got home and gave them the bag, which contained stacks of $100, $50 and $20 bills totaling about $120,000. The woman who left the bag knew the juror’s first name, the agent said. The names of the jurors have not been made public, but the list of people with access to this investigation included prosecutors, defense attorneys and the seven defendants.

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

The federal charges of bribery of a juror and influencing a juror carry a maximum potential sentence of 15 years in prison.

Food assistance came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was administered by the state, which funneled meal money through nonprofits and other partners. As rules were relaxed to speed up aid to the needy, the defendants allegedly produced invoices for meals never served, ran shell companies, laundered money, engaged in passport fraud and accepted bribes.

Federal prosecutors said only a fraction of the money the defendants received through the nonprofit Feeding our Future went to feed low-income children, while The rest was spent on luxury cars, jewelry, travel and real estate.. The seven collectively stole more than $40 million, they said.

The common thread in the defense’s arguments was that investigators failed to dig deep enough to verify that they were serving real meals to real children.

Eighteen other defendants pleaded guilty. Among those awaiting trial are Aimée Bock, the founder to feed our future. She maintained her innocence, saying she never stole and saw no evidence of fraud among her subcontractors.

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