The U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Paul on the afternoon of April 25, 2022. Credit: Joey Peters | Sahan Journal

New details about the sweeping investigation into alleged federal food aid fraud emerged Monday.

The information came during a court hearing for the first suspect charged in connection with the investigation. FBI special agent Travis Wilmer testified Monday that the FBI raided approximately two dozen properties on January 20 as part of the alleged multi-million-dollar fraud of the Child Nutrition Program. 

Search warrants that were unsealed in January listed 15 known properties that the FBI raided that day while investigating alleged fraud committed by Feeding Our Future and several vendors and contractors it worked with. Wilmer’s comments suggest that at least nine more properties were raided and haven’t been publicly disclosed. 

The revelation came at a detention and preliminary hearing for Mohamed Jama Ismail, 49, of Savage, who was arrested on April 20 and charged with one count of passport fraud. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release last week that he is “one of the targets” of the fraud investigation. No one has been indicted in the case that alleges money earmarked to feed disadvantaged children was diverted to pay for personal travel, real estate, and cars.

Although Mohamed has not been indicted in the alleged food aid fraud, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Thompson told the court Monday that, “He stole millions of dollars.” Thompson argued that Mohamed should remain in jail.

Mohamed’s attorney, Patrick Cotter, took issue with Thompson’s approach and asked for his client’s release, arguing that Mohamed’s court hearing was not over the alleged food aid fraud. U.S. Magistrate Judge John Docherty took note of Cotter’s argument, but ultimately found that Mohamed was a flight risk and ordered him to remain in custody.

feeding our future

Mohamed, who is in custody at the Sherburne County jail, appeared in person for the hearing but did not address the court.

Wilmer also revealed the makeup of the federal investigation team leading the fraud investigation: four FBI agents, including himself; three FBI forensic accountants, each of whom attended Monday’s court hearing; one investigator with the Internal Revenue Service; and one investigator with the U.S. Postal Service.

Thompson is leading the prosecution with U.S. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chelsea Walcker. 

‘Not here’ to argue multi-million dollar fraud case

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office: FBI agents arrested Mohamed last Wednesday afternoon as he boarded a flight at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport bound for Nairobi, Kenya. He had flown in from Rochester, Minnesota, and was on layover. 

Wilmer told the court Monday that Mohamed was trying to flee the country to avoid prosecution in the alleged food fraud investigation. He had checked five bags of luggage and was carrying two bags when he was arrested, Wilmer said. 

Cotter said Mohamed was traveling to visit his wife, children, and ill father, who all live in Nairobi, and that he planned to return to Minnesota. Mohamed makes routine trips to Kenya three times a year, Cotter said, adding that the five bags of luggage contained items for his family. 

Federal authorities say that Mohamed lied in March on an application for a new passport, after FBI agents seized his passport during the January 20 raid of his house. 

Mohamed allegedly wrote on the application that his passport was “lost at home,” and also indicated that he filed a police report about it. Both statements were false, according to the charges against him. 

Mohamed received a new passport on the same day he applied for one–March 22–because he indicated that he would be traveling out of the country soon, according to Wilmer’s testimony. He then bought a ticket for a flight to Nairobi, where his wife and five children live, and where he owns three properties and has a 25 percent stake in a textile company. 

FBI search warrants unsealed earlier this year list Mohamed as a co-owner of Empire Cuisine & Market, a restaurant that contracted as a food vendor with Feeding Our Future, the sponsor organization at the heart of the federal investigation. FBI agents seized $6 million from Empire in January, and the FBI alleges Mohamed and his business partner wired $2 million to bank accounts in Kenya and China.

Two U.S. Marshals escorted Mohamed to the federal courthouse in St. Paul midmorning Monday. He wore a brown T-Shirt shirt underneath his orange jail shirt and yellow pants, and remained quiet and attentive through the hearing. 

Cotter repeatedly emphasized Monday that Mohamed hasn’t been charged with financial fraud. 

“We are not here at this time arguing his detention based on a $30 million fraud case,” Cotter said. 

Cotter added that he had “never been in this situation” where the “majority” of the allegations made against his client came from an “incomplete investigation.”

“I do take your point about the allegations,” Docherty told Cotter at one point.

Citing Mohamed’s strong community ties to Minnesota, his faith, his clean criminal record, and his steady employment since coming to the United States 22 years ago, Cotter asked the judge to release Mohamed on a “reasonable combination of considerations.” Those considerations, Cotter said, could include putting Mohamed on a no-fly list, monitoring his movements with an ankle bracelet, and barring him from applying for a new passport.

Thompson said Mohamed met all three conditions of a flight risk: He has a motive to flee, the means to travel, and a place to go. He also alleged that in order to “slip under the radar,” Mohamed booked his flight to Kenya out of Rochester despite living in the Twin Cities area.  

Docherty ruled in the prosecution’s favor.

“You will be held in jail until the passport fraud case is over,” Docherty told Mohamed.

Docherty also allowed the passport fraud case against Mohamed to move forward. 

Thompson and Wilmer emphasized on Monday that along with his home in Savage, Mohamed owns three properties in Kenya, including a home that is under construction. Federal authorities are attempting to seize his Savage home. 

Cotter, however, said prosecutors were making assumptions that Mohamed bought property with the federal money. Cotter said Mohamed is a law-abiding, religious man who received his citizenship in the mid-2000s and worked the same job for 14 years until becoming an entrepreneur. He noted that Mohamed bought his Savage home six years before the FBI opened their investigation into alleged food aid fraud. 

“He bought his home with hard-earned money working and toiling, so he could provide for his family,” Cotter said.

Cotter declined to comment about the case after the hearing. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...