Attorneys outline cases as first Feeding Our Future trial starts

Published 5:25 am Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Matt Sepic, Minnesota Public Radio News

Attorneys provided a preview of their cases as the first federal trial to stem from the Feeding Our Future investigation opened Monday. Prosecutors say seven defendants schemed to steal $47 million from taxpayer-funded child nutrition programs by falsifying attendance rosters and food invoices.

They were allegedly part of a much larger conspiracy involving dozens of people tied to the Twin Cities nonprofit.

Email newsletter signup

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Ebert told jurors that the defendants exploited special pandemic-era rules to commit “a monumental crime of opportunity.”

Defense attorney Patrick Cotter, who represents Empire Cuisine and Market co-owner Mohamed Ismail said his client operated a legitimate business in Shakopee.

Cotter told jurors that Ismail followed the rules, which allowed him to profit from the food program, and used what he earned to pay his mortgage. Cotter said that’s not money laundering as prosecutors allege.

Ebert began by reminding jurors about the fear and uncertainty of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic four years ago.

He said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to keep food flowing to children in need while school was closed, so it changed the rules for the Summer Food Service and Child and Adult Care Food Programs. Instead of feeding kids at child care centers, the USDA allowed restaurants to participate.

But Ebert said “society’s crisis was the defendants’ opportunity” and they “pocketed children’s lunch money for themselves.”

Ebert showed photos of large stacks of cash taken by FBI agents during their raids in early 2022 as well as some images allegedly recovered from the defendants’ phones.

Other slides gave a glimpse of how the group allegedly spent the stolen money. One showed renderings of defendant Abdiaziz Farah’s custom home south of the Twin Cities. Another photo captures one defendant opening a champagne bottle during a luxury vacation to the Maldives, with the cork frozen in mid air.

Ebert also showed jurors food invoices with “impossibly large, round numbers,” and meal site attendance rosters with apparently made-up names like “Britishy Melony” that allegedly appeared over and over at multiple purported meal sites.

He said a former Feeding Our Future employee who pleaded guilty will testify for the government.

Lawyers for six of the seven defendants each gave separate opening statements. Michael Brandt, who represents Hayat Nur, reserved his opening statement for later in the trial.

Andrew Birrell said his client Abdiaziz Farah, another owner of Empire Cuisine, is a hard-working entrepreneur who fled the civil war in Somalia and started a market that thrived by selling take-out food during the pandemic.

Birrell said Farah connected with Partners in Nutrition so he could expand his business by serving food through the USDA meal programs, took “enormous financial risks” to participate, and followed a byzantine set of rules to get reimbursed.

“Not a single child missed a single meal due to anything Abdi did,” Birrell said because the payments were reimbursements for money that his client already spent.

Attorney Patrick Cotter, who represents Mohamed Ismail, said his client acted in good faith on what he understood that the government food programs allowed and required of for-profit businesses.

Cotter said that prosecutors’ focus on large numbers of individual meals misrepresents how the programs operated during the pandemic. He said the numbers are large because meals were distributed in bulk, often to parents who picked up a week’s worth of food at a time for large families.

After the attorneys presented their opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson called Minnesota Department of Education Nutrition Program Services Director Emily Honer as the government’s first witness.

MDE oversees the USDA child nutrition programs on the state level and was the focus of heavy criticism at the Legislature last year after the alleged fraud came to light. In 2021, Feeding Our Future sued MDE after the agency halted payments over suspected fraud.

Honer began her testimony Monday by explaining how the programs operated prior to the pandemic and detailed the rules that meal sites and their sponsors are required to follow in order to receive reimbursement for providing food to children. Honer is expected to return to the witness stand Tuesday.