5 of 7 defendants convicted of misusing Covid relief money meant to feed children

A Minnesota jury on Friday found five of seven defendants guilty of most of the crimes they faced related to a scheme in which they misused millions of dollars meant to feed children during the pandemic.

The federal fraud trial was the first in a $250 million Covid relief scheme that prosecutors say is the largest of its kind. 

The verdict comes days after one juror said she had been offered nearly $120,000 in cash in exchange for voting to acquit. The juror was dismissed after reporting the alleged bribe attempt to the court and police.

A second juror was released Tuesday after a family member brought up the alleged bribe in a conversation.

FBI agents raided Feeding Our Future in St. Anthony, Minn., on Jan. 20, 2022. Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune via Getty Images file

After deliberating for more than three days, the sequestered jury found five of the defendants — Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Nur — guilty of most of the crimes they were accused of, according to NBC affiliate KARE reporter Lou Raguse.

Two other defendants — Said Shafii Farah and Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin — were acquitted of all the crimes they faced, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering.

The conspiracy to commit money laundering charge comes with a potential penalty of 20 years in prison.

From April 2020 to January 2022, the defendants collectively received more than $40 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds, which were meant to provide free, nutritious meals to children and low-income families, according to a criminal complaint.

While the defendants claimed to have fed millions of children with those funds, prosecutors said they used most of the money to buy multiple homes and properties and luxury vehicles. 

“This was a brazen scheme of staggering proportions,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said in a statement in September 2022 when prosecutors announced the federal charges. “These defendants exploited a program designed to provide nutritious food to needy children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they prioritized their own greed.”

The defendants were among 70 people charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota in a massive fraud scheme involving the nonprofit Feeding Our Future. Eighteen have pleaded guilty, officials said.

Feeding Our Future was a sponsor participating in the Federal Child Nutrition Program. Prosecutors said the nonprofit’s employees recruited people and entities to open Federal Child Nutrition Program sites throughout Minnesota. Feeding Our Future went from receiving and disbursing about $3.4 million in federal funds in 2019 to nearly $200 million in 2021, prosecutors said.

The trial lasted six weeks. More than 30 witnesses testified.

It’s unclear who offered the juror the bribe. On Friday, the FBI said the investigation was ongoing. The agency said it was “present” in Savage, Minnesota, on Wednesday, “conducting court authorized law enforcement activity.” The agency declined to provide more information. At least three of the defendants have purchased homes in Savage, according to a superseding indictment.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota declined to comment on the jury tampering investigation.

The juror said a woman delivered a gift bag full of cash and left it with a relative, according to an FBI search warrant affidavit. She said she was not home when the cash was delivered Sunday, the eve of deliberations. 

The jurors’ names have not been made public, but the visitor knew the woman’s first name and told her relative that there would “be more of that present tomorrow” if the juror agreed to vote not guilty, the affidavit said.

The FBI said all of the defendants, their attorneys and the prosecutors had access to that juror’s identifying information.

In a detention order filed Thursday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel said it is “likely” that at least one defendant was involved in the bribe attempt. 

“As the Court sees it, it is more than possible that one of the seven defendants on trial played a role in bribing a juror,” Brasel wrote. 

Bribing a juror is a felony and comes with a substantial term of imprisonment, including a 20-year statutory maximum in certain cases, Brasel said.

The judge had ordered the defendants to surrender their cellphones and all seven phones were taken into custody.

Regarding the alleged bribery incident, Frederick Goetz, an attorney for one of the defendants, Shariff, told NBC News on Tuesday that his client “had absolutely no part in it.” Steve Schleicher, an attorney representing Said Shafii Farah, declined to comment Thursday. 

None of the other defendants’ attorneys responded to requests for comment.

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