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5 Convicted in Federal Fraud Trial Imperiled by a Gift Bag of Cash

Sabti 8 June 2024 {HMC}  A federal jury in Minneapolis on Friday convicted five people who had been accused of embezzling millions of government dollars from programs aimed at feeding hungry children during the pandemic. Two others accused in the case were acquitted.

The trial, the first of what is expected to be several, lasted six weeks. It ended with a stunning revelation from a juror, who officials said was apparently given a gift bag crammed with $120,000 in a bribe attempt seeking acquittals.

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The juror was dismissed and an alternate juror took part in deliberations. A second juror was also replaced, court officials said on Tuesday, because the juror had learned about the attempted bribe.

The six men and the one woman on trial in Minnesota had been charged with several felonies, including wire fraud, federal programs bribery and money laundering. In the end, four of the men and the woman were convicted. Some of the most serious charges can carry sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

They were accused of stealing more than $40 million from government programs meant to feed hungry children, through a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future, based just outside Minneapolis.

The five convicted were among 70 people charged with stealing a total of $250 million from federal food-aid programs in Minnesota in what prosecutors described as one of the largest fraud cases the Department of Justice has overseen in recent years.

Prosecutors said people claiming to feed children were able to collect funds as pandemic-era rules loosened government oversight and federal officials stopped visiting feeding sites in person to verify that food was being provided to children.

Prosecutors said those charged had claimed to be serving meals to children during the pandemic, but rarely did. Instead, they said, the defendants used the money to buy cryptocurrency, liquor, luxury cars and custom homes.

At the trial, defense lawyers asserted that the defendants had indeed used the money to purchase food and feed needy people. They also attacked the credibility of a witness who had cooperated with the government and agreed to testify against them.

The people on trial were Somali immigrants, ranging in age from 23 to 51 and living in various neighborhoods around the Twin Cities. Those convicted were Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur.

Said Shafii Farah and Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, whose defense lawyers had said they had only minor roles in the food distribution operation, were acquitted.

After the allegation of an attempt to bribe a juror emerged on Monday, Judge Nancy Brasel of U.S. District Court ordered that the remaining jurors be isolated during deliberations to avoid additional problems.

An investigation into the bribe attempt was underway, officials said. Bribing a juror is a felony. A federal judge on Monday permitted the F.B.I. to seize and inspect cellphones of the seven defendants as part of the investigation, and the seven were ordered to be held in jail while awaiting the jury’s verdict.

Ernesto Londoño is a Times reporter based in Minnesota, covering news in the Midwest and drug use and counternarcotics policy. More about Ernesto Londoño

David A. Fahrenthold is an investigative reporter writing about nonprofit organizations. He has been a reporter for two decades. More about David A. Fahrenthold

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