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唐朱昌
唐朱昌
教授,博士生导师。复旦大学中国反洗钱研究中心首任主任,复旦大学俄...
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严立新
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陈浩然
复旦大学法学院教授、博士生导师;复旦大学国际刑法研究中心主任。...
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何 萍
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周锦贤
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童文俊
童文俊
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汤 俊
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李 刚
李 刚
生辰:1977.7.26 籍贯:辽宁抚顺 民族:汉 党派:九三学社 职称:教授 研究...
祝亚雄
祝亚雄
祝亚雄,1974年生,浙江衢州人。浙江师范大学经济与管理学院副教授,博...
顾卿华
顾卿华
复旦大学中国反洗钱研究中心特聘研究员;现任安永管理咨询服务合伙...
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张平
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上传时间: 2024-06-09      浏览次数:230次
5 Feeding Our Future defendants found guilty, 2 acquitted in sprawling fraud case

 

https://minnesotareformer.com/2024/06/07/five-feeding-our-future-defendants-found-guilty-two-acquitted-in-sprawling-fraud-case/

 

A jury found five defendants guilty and two not guilty on Friday in the first trial in the nation’s largest pandemic relief fraud case.

 

They faced a total of 41 charges — chiefly wire fraud, bribery and money laundering — alleging they claimed to give away 18.8 million meals to needy children from 50 sites across the state. Prosecutors said they fabricated invoices and submitted thousands of phony names of children in order to get $49 million in federal funds.

 

Said Shafii Farah and Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin were acquitted of all charges against them, while the others had a mix of convictions and acquittals.

 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson held a brief press conference and said, “We’re pleased with the verdict. We’re proud of the trial.”

 

He said the outcome confirms what the feds knew all along: That members of the group falsified documents, lied and claimed to be serving millions of meals, taking advantage of a global pandemic to defraud the public and steal millions of dollars.

 

This conduct was not just criminal, it was depraved and brazen,” Thompson said. “Evidence showed how brazen the scheme was, and how extensive and shameless it was.”

 

The verdict came at the end of a chaotic week, when the first day of jury deliberations was marked by chaos Monday, as federal prosecutors revealed that someone left $120,000 at the home of a juror Sunday night in an effort to sway her vote. The juror — and another juror who became aware of the bribe attempt — were dismissed, while the remaining jurors were sequestered and the defendants detained for the remainder of deliberations.

 

The home of one of the defendants, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, whom prosecutors have described as a ringleader, was raided Wednesday in connection with the bribe investigation.

 

The defendants are the first to stand trial out of 70 people charged so far in what’s been dubbed the Feeding Our Future case — named for a nonprofit at the center of the scheme — and which revolves around a web of people who federal prosecutors say stole some $250 million. Eighteen people have pleaded guilty and one fled the country.

 

The verdict is sure to affect the 44 others awaiting trial. More could still be charged, especially if the guilty verdicts unleash a wave of cooperation with the investigation, as defendants and suspects seek lighter sentences. The two acquittals may give some the confidence to go to trial, however.

 

In painstaking detail, government accountants and investigators showed how defendants funneled money through numerous corporations to conceal that they weren’t buying much food, and paid kickbacks to nonprofits that were supposed to be overseeing them. They showed evidence the defendants only spent a few million dollars on food, and spent the rest on pricey vehicles, luxury vacations to the Maldives and the Middle East and new homes, including a suburban lakefront mansion.

 

This case revolved around a small halal restaurant and market in a Shakopee strip mall called Empire Cuisine & Market. It was incorporated by two of the defendants in April 2020, and soon after claimed to be feeding kids at a couple dozen distribution sites. The restaurant received nearly $30 million in federal funds, and spent about $3 million of it on food — some of which appeared to be for the restaurant, according to an FBI forensic accountant.

 

Their defense attorneys argued they actually did give away food — showing photos and videos with some food being stored, packaged and distributed — and were allowed to make a profit. They blamed the state Department of Education that ran the program and two nonprofits at the center of the case — Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition — for not giving them enough guidance as they navigated a complicated, ever-changing array of federal waivers.

 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture loosened its rules during the COVID-19 pandemic to make it easier to get food to children as schools and child care centers shuttered. Prosecutors say the program was flooded with reimbursement requests from the defendants and others charged in Minnesota, even though very little food was actually served.

 

The defendants

 

Abdiaziz Shafii Farah of Savage and Mohamed Jama Ismail of Savage incorporated Empire Cuisine & Market on April 1, 2020, got permits to convert it into a grocery store and 18 days later told their sponsoring nonprofit, Partners in Nutrition, they were ready to distribute 250 meals at the Samaha Family Center in Shakopee. They opened a bank account for the company on May 12, 2020, and began filing claims seeking reimbursement from the government for meals.

 

Farah was found guilty on all but one count. He was convicted of six counts of wire fraud; one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud; conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery; two counts of federal programs bribery; 11 counts of money laundering; making false statements in a passport application; and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was acquitted of one count of wire fraud.

 

Empire Cuisine & Market and other affiliated sites received over $28 million in fraudulent federal child nutrition funds, prosecutors said.

 

Prosecutors showed jurors WhatsApp messages between defendant Abdiaziz Farah and another person indicted in the case talking about how to divide up the money they made, coming up with names of children served, and dealing with the state and nonprofit that were supposed to be monitoring them — as opposed to the logistics of getting huge amounts of food to distribution sites.

 

The next multi-millionaires will be you and me,” Abdiaziz Farah wrote in one message.

 

He went on to write a $1 million check to buy a lakeside Prior Lake home.

 

Mohamed Jama Ismail of Savage was a co-owner of Empire Cuisine & Market, and prosecutors say he pocketed over $2 million in the scheme, buying a GMC pickup, two trucks for $167,000, and spending $137,000 to pay off the mortgage on the house he’d bought six years earlier.

 

Ismail was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and acquitted of another count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud; and convicted of money laundering and conspiracy to money launder.

 

His lawyer, Patrick Cotter, portrayed him as a hard-working immigrant who did not purposely defraud the government. Cotter said Ismail nearly died of hepatitis and hunger before making it to America, where he realized his dream of opening an East African restaurant.

 

After the FBI seized Ismail’s passport during a January 2022 raid of his home, he applied for a new one months later, claiming he’d lost his. Three months later, he was arrested in a jetway about to board a one-way flight from Minneapolis to Kenya, seeking to to reunite with his wife and five children.

 

Abdimajid Mohamed Nur of Shakopee was 20 when he got involved in the food program, where his lawyer Edward Sapone said he may have been “in over his head” but saw it as a dream job and “his big chance.”

 

Nur was convicted of four counts of wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud; four counts of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to money launder. He was acquitted of three counts of money laundering.

 

Sapone said Nur picked rocks out of crops at age 10 and put in 14-hour days working at Dairy Queen in high school, where he was an athlete who ran the 800-meter. He enlisted in the U.S. Army as a teen before getting involved in the food program, where his lawyer said he made “a lot of money” and was seen as “the star of the family.”

 

He created a consulting company that prosecutors said was used to launder federal funds from Empire Cuisine & Market and other entities. Prosecutors said he signed off on dozens of sites’ meal claims daily, showed a $30,000 wire transfer from his consulting company to a Dubai jewelry company and an $11,000 payoff of his car.

 

Said Shafii Farah of Minneapolis, brother of defendant Abdiaziz Farah, was an owner of Bushra Wholesalers LLC, which prosecutors said was a shell company used to launder federal funds.

 

His attorney, Steven Schleicher, said Said Farah distributed food and is a self-made businessman who lives in a modest Minneapolis home.

 

Farah was acquitted of all eight charges of wire fraud, bribery and money laundering.

 

He’s just very grateful to be to have been acquitted and exonerated of these charges and to put this behind him,” Schleicher said.

 

Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, 32, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was an owner of Bushra Wholesalers LLC.

 

Aftin was acquitted of three wire fraud and money laundering charges.

 

Aftin’s lawyer Andrew Garvis praised the jury for their decision.

 

They were extremely conscientious and I’m glad that they heard the evidence and took it all into consideration,” Garvis said.

 

Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff of Bloomington was the chief executive officer of Afrique Hospitality Group, which used federal funds to build an East African community center in Bloomington. Prosecutors said Afrique was a shell company used to fraudulently obtain and launder federal funds, but Shariff, the only defendant of seven who opted to testify in the case, said it was a real project with other investors, and actually got built (although it went through bankruptcy and has since been taken over by others and operates under the name Zawadi).

 

Shariff was convicted of two wire fraud charges and two money laundering charges and acquitted of two bribery charges.

 

Prosecutors said Shariff pocketed $1.3 million in 2021 working for Afrique and as a consultant to other entities involved in the food program, and invested over $1 million in cryptocurrency. They alleged he also gave a $250,000 kickback to a former Feeding Our Future employee named Ikram Yusuf Mohamed.

 

Shariff is probably the most well-known defendant, having created the annual Somali Diaspora Conference, started a podcast called Nomadic Hustle and worked in software engineering in Seattle before moving to Bloomington in the fall of 2020.

 

Hayat Mohamed Nur, 25, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, the sister of Abdimajid Nur, participated in the scheme by creating and submitting fraudulent meal count sheets, attendance rosters, and invoices.

 

Nur was convicted of four wire fraud counts and acquitted of money laundering.