A.L. Brown is an attorney at Capitol City Law Group in St. Paul and expert in criminal defense law in federal and state courts. Credit: A.L. Brown

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After a week of combing through hundreds of pages in three FBI search warrants, Sahan Journal has reported extensively on complex allegations of food aid fraud in the Twin Cities. 

The allegations are directed at Feeding Our Future, a St. Anthony-based nonprofit that has collected hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, ostensibly to feed disadvantaged children and adults. 

On January 20, the FBI unsealed three search warrants outlining allegations that Feeding Our Future and several of its contractors used that money for personal expenditures like new cars, trips to Las Vegas, and real estate purchases in Kenya. The FBI raided the nonprofit’s offices that day. Sahan Journal’s own reporting unfolded throughout the next week.

While the search warrants are highly detailed, it’s important to note that warrants don’t charge anyone with a crime and no arrests have been made. Feeding Our Future Director Aimee Bock denied allegations of fraud in an in-depth interview with Sahan Journal

Sahan Journal wanted to ask a legal expert to walk us through what the federal warrants tell us, what they don’t tell us, why no one has yet been charged, and more. But that project turned out to be easier said than done. Eight prominent lawyers of color declined to talk about the case, citing clients, publicity-shy employers, and more. 

We were pleased, then, when  A.L. Brown, an attorney at Capitol City Law Group in St. Paul, agreed to explain how search warrants and federal investigations work. Brown is an expert in federal and state criminal defense law and has served as the co-chair of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that serves people who have been wrongfully convicted.

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He also informed us upfront that he has been retained to represent someone involved in the Feeding Our Future investigation. In that light, Brown spoke broadly about criminal procedure and defense law–not the details of his defense work on this case. 

Brown’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What’s a search warrant?

A search warrant is an authorization from a judge that tells the government that it can go in and recover certain items, seize items, or search places. It’s required by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in most cases, and it’s got to be based on an affidavit that gives the judge a sense that evidence of a crime can be located in a specific place.

What’s the difference between a search warrant and an indictment?

A search warrant is all based on what a law enforcement officer says to a federal magistrate judge. And I’m just talking about federal search warrants. Generally, these principles apply to state court, too.

But in a federal case, it’s generally based on what a law enforcement agent, FBI agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent or postal inspector has said to a judge in writing and sworn to be true that gives the judge the sense that there might be evidence of a crime. 

The judge isn’t making any judgment about whether a crime has been committed. They’re just saying: “OK, you persuaded me sufficiently that you’re not just going to rummage through someone’s home without good cause. This search is reasonable, and therefore I’m going to authorize it under this warrant.”

An indictment is when a grand jury, particularly in federal court, gathers and the prosecutor brings in witnesses and says, “We want to indict this person on these crimes. You tell me if we have enough evidence.” 

The grand jury listens to the witnesses and in some instances may ask questions of their own. If the grand jurors agree that it appears the person has committed a crime based on the evidence presented, then an indictment comes forward.

Then there may be an arrest warrant, which is the judge saying, “Go and arrest this person.”

Could you walk us through the order of events after a search warrant has been issued?

It’s not a linear track. Every case is different, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say this is the timeline. Generally, every indictment should be preceded by a significant investigation. Otherwise, what is the grand jury going to consider? 

Sometimes it can happen quickly, sometimes it can take a while. But there’s some level of investigation, whether that investigation has been accomplished through search warrants, wiretaps, subpoenas, whatever. The level of investigation may vary based on the complexity of the case.

Do you think there has been a sufficient investigation into Feeding Our Future so far? Do you think there’s still more to wait for?

I don’t think I’m comfortable answering that. What I will say is that there were warrants, and so the judge thought that there was sufficient evidence to search. But that’s just one side of the case.

Right now, the government has had all the press; all of the news stories have been focused on their narrative and their version of events—which is typical.

What do you mean by that?

At this point, only the government has spoken. No one’s been indicted. Maybe there will be indictments; I imagine there might be. No one has spoken, and they probably won’t and/or shouldn’t given the fact that they have lawyers. 

Right now, the government has had all the press; all of the news stories have been focused on their narrative and their version of events—which is typical.

So we’ve established that a search warrant doesn’t charge anyone with a crime, and that there’s pretty much only one side out there at the moment. Are there unintended consequences to having something as detailed as a search warrant made public?

The biggest trouble with pretrial publicity of any case is, somebody might say that there’s a search warrant so therefore you’re guilty. That’s not how it goes. Or somebody might say, well, you’re indicted, and therefore a grand jury says you’re guilty. That’s not how it goes. 

That’s the primary danger. The public has to understand the limiting view of those two documents.

The biggest trouble with pretrial publicity of any case is, somebody might say that there’s a search warrant so therefore you’re guilty. That’s not how it goes.

Might all the people named in the warrants be charged? What can we expect?

Be patient. You don’t know how the process is going to play out. The lawyers have some sense of it, but it’s best not to try to read into the search warrants. It says what it says. That’s the government’s view. And a judge signed off on that for the limited purposes of letting the government do a search and seizure.

It’s certainly not a statement of guilt or innocence. Even with the indictment, even with search warrants, you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty.

In federal cases, it’s essentially the United States v. You. What is it like to be prosecuted by the U.S. government?

Even the finest of defense attorneys know that the United States government has immense resources and is not afraid to use them. But that doesn’t always equate to guilt. I’ve seen criminal cases in federal court where the defendant walks out the door.

At the end of the day, it comes down to those 12 folks in the jury box. They decide what the outcome is. But it’s a daunting task.

Even the finest of defense attorneys know that the United States government has immense resources and is not afraid to use them. But that doesn’t always equate to guilt. I’ve seen criminal cases in federal court where the defendant walks out the door.

What’s the situation for people who might be charged who are not U.S. citizens?

I’m not going to talk about this case in that context. What I will say, whether you’re in state or federal court, and your citizenship is not in the U.S., you face some challenges and convictions depending on what the crime is. I usually consult with an immigration lawyer. 

It’s obviously something any criminal defense attorney would flag. What are the risks? What’s your exposure for deportation or exclusion? That can get pretty complicated.

The order is: investigation, indictment, then there’s a trial or plea, and then it’s an acquittal or a guilty verdict.

What will happen to people after they’re indicted? Are they arrested?

An arrest warrant comes after a grand jury issues an indictment. The judge may issue an arrest warrant and say, “Now that you’ve been charged and indicted with this crime, we need you to come to this location.” 

So the order is: investigation, indictment, then there’s a trial or plea, and then it’s an acquittal or a guilty verdict.

Will this case move quickly or slowly?

Slowly and quickly are a matter of judgment. It will move at its own pace. 

For example, if you’re talking about a person who shouldn’t have a firearm in their possession and the feds want to arrest them, they’ll look on Facebook and see you’ve posted 100 pictures of yourself with the firearm. That’s a pretty quick and easy investigation. 

But if you’re talking about raiding multiple locations in what is, in essence, a complicated fraud case, things tend to move slower. But I can’t quantify it.

Do politicians and people in power historically get more protection in these investigations?

The government would say, “We apply justice without fear or favor,” and they’d give you all this even-handed talk. But the reality is no one can, in good faith, deny that if the feds want a politician indicted—which happens—then they are meticulous in how they approach the investigation. 

They know they have to get it right. They’re generally meticulous, but I’m talking about approaching it with a particular carefulness because of the high-profile nature of any indictment coming out of that.

When will we know more?

Right now the cards are in the government’s hands. No one has been indicted yet. It would be hard to imagine that they would not be. It would waste the boxes the investigators took out of all the various locations.

The presumption of innocence is still very much on the board. So far, only one side of the story has been told. 

The government is not always right. There’s proof of that in just about every aspect of our lives—from whose snow gets removed, to whose taxes get lowered, to what race of people are executed. You could go down the list. But right now the ball’s in their court.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.