Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

New documents filed in federal court last week shed more light on an FBI investigation into potential voting irregularities in Minneapolis.

Muse Mohamud Mohamed was charged in November 2021 with two counts of lying to a grand jury about absentee ballots. The government’s trial brief, filed April 19 in federal court, reveals for the first time what the grand jury was investigating: the “agent delivery process” in the August 11, 2020 primary election.

The court filing also suggests where the voting took place: state Senate District 62. In that DFL race to represent south Minneapolis, challenger Omar Fateh topped incumbent Jeff Hayden, and then won the general election in November. 

The “agent delivery process” is available to voters in special circumstances who cannot go to their polling place. They may be hospitalized; live in a nursing home, residential treatment center, or group home; or have “incapacitating health reasons or a disability.” These voters can choose someone to pick up and return an absentee ballot for them. That person, or agent, must be at least 18 years old, have a “preexisting relationship” with the voter, and not be a candidate for office.

According to the government’s trial brief, Muse Mohamed knowingly gave false information to the grand jury about his role in the agent delivery process. (Before charging anyone with a felony, the federal government must call a group of citizens—a grand jury—to hear evidence and determine whether it is likely that any crime occurred.) Muse had delivered ballots for three voters. “The three voters, however, do not know [Muse] Mohamed and did not ask him to pick up and deliver absentee ballots for them,” the brief reads. “One of the ballots that Mohamed attempted to return to the City of Minneapolis was ultimately rejected because the voter had voted in person at her polling place.”

Muse has not, however, been charged with any crimes pertaining to the agent delivery process. Instead, he faces two counts of lying to a grand jury about it. He is the only person who has been charged in connection with this investigation.

Both in Minnesota and nationally, voter fraud is extremely rare, though it has become a hot-button political issue. Republican-led state legislatures across the country have invoked the specter of voting irregularities to restrict the voting rights of millions of citizens. 

The scope of the FBI’s investigation into voting in Minneapolis remains unclear. Many people with knowledge of the case, the investigation, or voting laws opted not to speak to Sahan Journal for this story. 

Reached for comment, Muse’s lawyer, Charlie Clippert, said he was in the middle of another trial and did not have time to talk.

Tasha Zerna, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the charges, declined to comment on the case or the scope of the investigation.

Charles Burnham, a special agent for the FBI who is listed online as the bureau’s “Minneapolis election crime coordinator,” declined to comment, referring questions to the FBI’s public affairs officer. The public affairs officer, Cynthia Barrington, said that following Department of Justice policy, the FBI would not comment on anything that is not in the public record.

The Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, which oversees election administration, also declined to comment.

But new documents, combined with ongoing reporting, begin to paint a picture of the FBI’s investigation into voting in Minneapolis in the August 2020 election.

The battle for Senate District 62

The latest round of court filings specifies that the election at issue was the August 11, 2020 primary, and further specifies that this primary included a state Senate election. In one filing, the government lists the exhibits it plans to show the jury during Muse’s trial. One of these exhibits is a map of Senate District 62 in south Minneapolis, as well as a map of the addresses of the three voters whose ballots he allegedly mishandled. 

In that district’s August 2020 primary election, now–Senator Omar Fateh bested incumbent Jeff Hayden by about 10 percentage points and nearly 2,000 votes.

Omar and his legislative assistant (and campaign manager), Dawson Kimyon, did not respond to repeated requests for comment via phone call, voicemail, text message, email, direct messages on Facebook and Twitter, or handwritten notes left at their Senate desks.

Hayden, however, was happy to talk.

“I’m very concerned about the people who live in that district who may have been disenfranchised,” said Hayden, who served 12 years in the Minnesota legislature before losing the 2020 primary to Omar Fateh. Hayden said he was not surprised by the allegations.

In May 2020, Hayden first raised concerns about voter integrity in the Senate District 62 contest. At the time, Hayden decried flaws in the online, party-run endorsement process, which Fateh won handily. 

Hayden said that his campaign had identified more than 150 delegates—voters who award party endorsement—whose campaign mail could not be delivered, because they did not live at the given address. (At the time, Omar’s campaign told Sahan Journal that 582 delegates voted overall.) Hayden filed a formal complaint with the party, but the complaint was unsuccessful. 

Ken Martin, the DFL party chairman, confirmed that the party investigated the convention process and held a hearing, but did not sustain Hayden’s challenge.

Martin said he was unaware of the charges against Muse.

“We don’t have all the facts at this point, but anyone that’s involved in committing any sort of voter fraud or violating statutes around our elections should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible of the law,” Martin said.

Hayden said he’s been hearing whispers about fraud in the campaign for a long time.

“I got anonymous calls from people who I didn’t know. A gentleman named Ali, a gentleman named Mohamed. I mean, for real, right?” Hayden said. “People I don’t know that would say that this election was not okay and that there was a lot of fraud involved.”

“I want Senator Fateh to be successful,” he added. “But if it comes out that he got there the wrong way, or hasn’t done what he’s supposed to do, then we’ve got to deal with him accordingly, hold him accountable, and then find somebody who is.”

That person would not be him, added Hayden, who’s now a government relations specialist for the law firm Fredrikson & Byron. He’s done running for office, he said.

What is the FBI investigating, and why?

The full scope and timeline of the voting investigation is unknown. Muse testified before the grand jury in September and October 2021. Then in February 2022, the FBI approached at least five Somali residents of a public housing complex to ask them about their votes in a special city election. That election was also held on August 11, 2020. 

In that election, Jamal Osman won an 11-way race to become the area’s next council member from south Minneapolis’ Ward 6. About half of Ward 6 also lies within the boundaries of Senate District 62.

The public-housing residents approached by the FBI told Sahan Journal they each voted by requesting an absentee ballot and getting a ride to drop it off at the city election center. Nothing they described violated election law. Nor did it utilize the agent delivery process (that is, the voting method at issue in Muse’s case). Court filings have not described any connection between the Ward 6 and Senate District 62 investigations.

All five voters told Sahan Journal the experience with the FBI left them feeling intimidated, and like their voting rights were under attack.

“We believe it’s every American’s right to vote,” one voter, Ismail, told Sahan Journal in February. “Voter suppression is illegal. That’s what’s happening to us, that’s the way we view it.” 

Court filings indicate that Muse’s legal team intends to call the executive director from the Council on American Islamic Relations to testify as a witness about the FBI’s relationship with the Somali community. In recent years, Somali community members have criticized the FBI for its Countering Violent Extremism program, which they say singled out Muslims for surveillance. In another case, the FBI claimed to have busted a sex-trafficking operation in the Somali community. A federal appeals court later found the entire case to be based on a “fictitious story.”

In their trial brief in this latest perjury case, the government argued that testimony about the relationship between the FBI and the Somali community is inadmissible because it does not pertain to the August 2020 election and could prejudice a jury. Clippert, Muse’s lawyer, contended in his own legal filing that the testimony was admissible “to establish the bias of the witnesses being brought in against him.”

A jury trial in the case is scheduled for May in federal district court.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...