Abdul Ali, 40, left the federal courthouse in Minneapolis after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud as part of the Feeding Our Future case. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

A St. Paul electrical engineer pleaded guilty Wednesday afternoon in federal court as part of the Feeding Our Future fraud investigation. He became the fourth defendant to plead guilty in the case.

Abdul Abubakar Ali, 40, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. As part of the plea deal, the government agreed to drop the remaining charges against him of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Those charges will be formally dropped during sentencing.

“Mr. Ali is a hardworking, loving father and husband,” said Abdul’s lawyer, Kevin Gregorius, after the hearing. “He deeply regrets his actions, and he is taking responsibility for his extremely minor role in this larger conspiracy.”

Abdul, leaving the hearing, declined to comment.

Fifty people have been charged in the investigation, and prosecutors have hinted that more charges are likely. The defendants are accused of embezzling $250 million from federal food-aid programs intended to feed underprivileged children. Three defendants, including a former Feeding Our Future employee, pleaded guilty on October 13 to their roles in the fraud.

The federal child nutrition program provides funds to sponsor organizations, such as Feeding Our Future, which then distribute that money to local groups that are supposed to provide meals. Prosecutors say that dozens of people, many working with Feeding Our Future, submitted documents that inflated the number of children they fed in order to receive more money. Many never fed children at all, prosecutors say.

Andrew Luger, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, has said the case represents the biggest single pandemic fraud scheme in the country.

According to federal charging documents, Abdul operated a food site called Youth Inventors Lab, along with Bekam Merdassa and Yusuf Ali. The site claimed to serve 1.3 million meals, supposedly provided by S&S Catering, between December 2020 and June 2021, but only served a fraction of those meals, according to the federal indictment.

Bekam Merdassa pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud on October 13. He told the court that he co-ran Youth Inventors Lab, a shell company that used Feeding Our Future as a sponsor organization. He said that Youth Inventors Lab never served a single meal, but collected $3 million in federal food-aid money by claiming to have served 1.3 million meals.

Kevin Riach, an attorney for Yusuf Ali, and Joseph Dixon, Bekam Merdassa’s lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Bekam and Dixon previously declined to comment.

According to charging documents, Abdul approached Bekam in December 2020 about using Youth Inventors Lab—a nonprofit Bekam had registered in 2017—to register in the food program. In mid-January 2021, Feeding Our Future submitted an application for Youth Inventors Lab to receive reimbursements through the child nutrition program. By the end of January, Abdul submitted paperwork claiming Youth Inventors Lab was providing more than 3,000 dinners and snacks every day. By March, Abdul was submitting paperwork claiming the site provided nearly 5,000 dinners and snacks daily.

Some of these funds were allegedly funneled to shell companies controlled in part by Abdul, including Bilterms Solutions and Franklyn Transportation. 

Abdul spoke little during the hearing, mostly answering questions with “yes” or “no” and adding “your honor” when addressing U.S. District Judge Nancy E. Brasel. When Judge Brasel asked him about his educational background, he replied that he had a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Then she asked about the different players in the alleged conspiracy: “You sort of pretend S&S is providing meals?”

“Yes, S&S is going to provide the meals,” Abdul replied.

“Once S&S gets paid, money goes from Youth Inventors Lab basically straight into your pockets?” Brasel asked.

“Yes, your honor.”

Altogether, Abdul admitted to receiving $82,000 from Youth Inventors Lab and $47,000 from Franklyn Transportation through his company Bilterms Solutions. He submitted fake invoices for services he did not provide, he said.

As part of the terms of the plea agreement, Abdul agreed to pay restitution of $122,698 and forfeit that amount to the government. He also agreed to serve 30 to 37 months in prison. Judge Brasel will determine his sentence at a later date.

By pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, rather than wire fraud itself, he will receive a much shorter sentence. Conspiracy to commit wire fraud carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; wire fraud’s maximum sentence is 20 years.

Judge Brasel asked him to clarify: Youth Inventors Lab claimed to serve a total of 1.3 million meals?

“Yes, your honor,” Abdul said.

“And the number of meals actually served was zero?” she continued.

“Yes, your honor,” he replied.

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...