Exterior shot of the Diana E. Murphy United States Courthouse on May 5, 2022. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Abdiaziz Farah allegedly lied on a passport application and booked a flight for Kenya two months ago. But federal authorities who have been investigating him since at least January didn’t catch wind of those plans until recently, according to courtroom testimony Wednesday. 

Abdiaziz, 33, is one of many targets in a federal investigation into the alleged multi-million dollar fraud against a federal food aid program. Federal authorities confiscated his original passport in January 2022, when they raided his Savage home, and found out last week that he had allegedly obtained a new one.

Abdiaziz has not been charged in the fraud investigation, but authorities fear he may try to flee the country. In a detention hearing Wednesday, authorities made the case for continuing to hold Abdiaziz in jail without bail. He was charged May 20 in federal court with passport fraud.

FBI Special Agent Travis Wilmer testified that his office learned through a complaint on May 20 that Abdiaziz allegedly applied for a new passport on March 22. The FBI sent a team of federal agents to surveil the parking lot of Empire Cuisine & Market, the Shakopee restaurant and grocery story Abdiaziz co-owns.  

Agents photographed an elderly man carrying a handful of passports from the parking lot to the restaurant, according to charging documents. They also witnessed Abdiaziz enter the restaurant that day. Agents didn’t arrest Abdiaziz at the scene, but wrote an arrest warrant for him.

Court filings add that Abdiaziz allegedly booked a one-way ticket to Kenya for March 24, but didn’t board the flight—-without offering further elaboration.

Abdiaziz surrendered to authorities on Monday, and is being held at Sherburne County jail. His attorney, Andy Birrell, argued Wednesday for his release. But U.S. District Court Judge David T. Schultz ordered him to remain in custody because he could possibly be indicted in the food fraud investigation.

Abdiaziz named in warrants alleging massive embezzlement scheme 

Wilmer is one of the four lead FBI agents investigating the alleged embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars from federal Child Nutrition Programs earmarked to feed low-income children. Abdiaziz is implicated in the investigation, which has not yielded charges against anyone. The FBI alleges in court documents that Abdiaziz received millions of the federal funds and spent it on five luxury cars, an 8,000-square-foot luxury home project in Prior Lake, real estate in Kentucky, and several overseas investments in China and Kenya, among other purchases. 

During Wednesday’s hearing, Birrell, Abdiaziz’s attorney, tried to cast doubt on whether the surveillance of the elderly man with passports had anything to do with the passport fraud charge against his client. 

Birrell emphasized that law enforcement surveilling Empire Cuisine last week never went inside the restaurant or questioned anyone that day about what the passports were for. Birrell called a private investigator he had hired, Ralph Johnson, to the witness stand.

Johnson, who is also a former IRS special agent, testified that he interviewed the man with the passports and the man’s family. They said they had come from an apartment showing earlier that day, and needed the passports to confirm their identity in order to rent it, Johnson told the court.

Johnson also said surveillance footage from inside Empire Cuisine showed the man eating food and placing the passports in a plastic bag. The man bought Nescafe at the market next door, brought the coffee and passports back to his car, went back inside the restaurant, and briefly greeted Abdiaziz, Johnson testified. 

“They were hugging,” Johnson said. “It was a very respectful greeting.”

Both men had nothing in their hands during the greeting, Johnson said. Birrell criticized the prosecutors’ inclusion of the passports in its charging documents against Abdiaziz, calling it a “terrible misappropriation of the facts.” 

“It was a completely, absolutely innocuous event,” Birrell said. 

The FBI “could have done what I did” and interviewed the man with the passports instead of implying they had anything to do with the passport fraud charges against Abdiaziz, Birrell said. 

Birrell’s argument persuaded the judge, but only to a point. 

“I do take them out of the equation,” Schultz said of the four passports. 

But, Schultz said, Abdiaziz has a “unique motive and unique means” to flee the country to avoid prosecution in the food-aid fraud investigation. 

“Mr. Farah obtained a passport arguably on false pretenses,” Schultz said. “That is the point.”

Federal authorities confiscated Abdiaziz’s passport. Then he got a new one. 

According to charges: Abdiaziz lied on a passport application on March 22 that he lost his original passport. He received a new passport that same day, and booked a one-way flight to Kenya.

Judge Schultz also ruled that prosecutors can proceed with the passport charges against Abdiaziz. Birrell did not address the passport fraud charges or the food fraud allegations against his client. He stated that he and Abdiaziz have been preparing their defense since January.

“The government has a theory of the case, and we absolutely disagree with it,” he said. 

Birrell stated that, “It’s not illegal in the U.S. to make money, [and] there’s nothing illegal about spending money.” The crux of the matter, he said, is how that money was obtained.

“He doesn’t have a motive to flee; he has a motive to fight,” Birrell told the court, “and that’s what we’re going to do.” 

Abdiaziz is the second suspect in the food fraud investigation to be charged with passport fraud. Mohamed Jama Ismail, 49, of Savage, was charged last month in federal court with the same count facing Abdiaziz. Mohamed has not been charged with fraud in the food aid investigation.

Abdiaziz and Mohamed co-own Empire Cuisine & Market.

Federal authorities arrested Mohamed on the jetway at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport as he was about to board an April 4 flight to Kenya. His case is pending, and he also remains in custody at the Sherburne County Jail.

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...