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Witnesses parse trove of text messages as Feeding Our Future trial continues in its third week


Friday May 17, 2024

A special agent from the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigations unit will return to the stand as trial resumes Friday after a Thursday break. 


Defendant Said Shafii Farah, center, walks into the United States District Court with his attorneys Clayton Carlson, left, and Steve Schleicher, right, during the first day of jury selection in the first Feeding Our Future case to go to trial in Minneapolis, Minn. on Monday, April 22, 2024. Monday was the first day of jury selection in the first Feeding Our Future case to go to trial. The eight defendants -- Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Mahad Ibrahim, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Said Shafii Farah, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur -- all have ties to Empire Cuisine in Shakopee, which received more than $40 million in federal reimbursements for claiming to serve more than 18 million meals to children over 18 months. ] LEILA NAVIDI • [email protected]

Attempts to show legitimate examples of handing out free food to needy families and text messages plotting how to buy property in Kenya are dominating the third week of proceedings in the Feeding Our Future trial in Minneapolis.

Jurors tasked with deciding the fates of seven of the 70 people charged in the food aid fraud case heard three days of testimony this week, with plans to take Thursday off. Much of their week so far has been spent listening to a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation unit meticulously detail text exchanges among several defendants.

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The texts appear to show the defendants coordinating how to split up reimbursement money from the government among the various entities they controlled. Special Agent Brian Pitzen, who will resume testimony Friday, also walked jurors through documents and messages linked to the purchase of property in Kenya that prosecutors say was made using money stolen from the U.S. government.

Most texts were about "cutting the profit," Pitzen said, adding that there was far less talk about how to transport the thousands of meals they claimed to be feeding children daily in locations around the state.

Jurors this week did see examples of actual food being handed out by groups linked to the defendants, but prosecutors claim that the seven on trial wildly inflated the number of meals served during the COVID-19 pandemic in invoices sent to the government. Prosecutors allege the conspiracy bilked federal government programs out of more than $40 million that was meant to reimburse day-care centers, nonprofits and schools for feeding low-income children after school and during the summer.

While holding a clicker counter on the witness stand, Pitzen narrated a video found on a phone seized from Abdiaziz Shafii Farah's home that purportedly showed a small group of people picking up bagged food items dropped off from a truck in Faribault. Jurors listened as the person recording the video rapidly tapped his own clicker counter at a rate far outpacing the families being served. Pitzen said Farah and others claimed to have served 7,000 meals and snacks each day across about a half-dozen sites in Faribault at one point in May 2021.

Farah, 35, who was charged in September 2022, owned Empire Cuisine and Market in Shakopee. The other defendants on trial are his brother, Said Shafii Farah, as well as Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur. They've been charged with wire fraud, money laundering and other crimes.

Prosecutors say Ibrahim worked with Farah and others to open a large number of food distribution sites in the name of his ThinkTechAct and Mind Foundry nonprofits — including one site at Oak Grove Middle School for Saturday meal pickups that included bagged groceries such as milk and produce.

Dinna Wade-Ardley, director in the office of educational equity for Bloomington Public Schools, testified Tuesday that the Oak Grove partnership served an average of about 600 meals weekly. She said that at one point she was asked to send a pre-written email vouching for ThinkTechAct to Shariff that copied Ibrahim and Aimee Bock, Feeding Our Future's executive director.

Feeding Our Future acted as a nonprofit sponsor responsible for monitoring food aid programs and submitting reimbursement claims to the Federal Child Nutrition Program. Bock is awaiting trial on similar charges and has denied any wrongdoing.

Wade-Ardley said she raised concerns about the email claiming to feed 3,000 children each week. But she agreed to send the email after Shariff explained that the number covered both Oak Grove and a distribution site at Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington.

When Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson showed Wade-Ardley invoices from ThinkTechAct billing the state more than $600,000 based on its own meal count tallies, Wade-Ardley expressed dismay. She said that money could have instead gone toward patching up some of the many other needs at school districts such as hers.

"I feel taken advantage of," she testified. "I feel the kids were taken advantage of."

Frederick Goetz, an attorney for Shariff, argued that each grocery bag distributed to families by Shariff's program was estimated to feed three people four meals for a week. He also pointed out that Dar Al Farooq is among the largest mosques in Minnesota, with worshipers coming from various locations.

"When Mr. Shariff was communicating to you the basis as he understood it for that 3,000 children number, you didn't have any reason to doubt it, did you?" Goetz asked Wade-Ardley.

"No sir," she replied.



 





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