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

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Guilty pleas in the Feeding Our Future fraud investigation started trickling in three weeks after the U.S. Attorney’s Office first announced charges against dozens of suspects. Six defendants have pleaded guilty in the case.

As Sahan Journal tracks the growing number of defendants in the case—which currently totals 50 people—we’ll also track all of the defendants who plead guilty. This story will be updated as more defendants plead.

Federal prosecutors call the Feeding Our Future investigation the largest single COVID-19 pandemic relief fraud case in the nation; at least $250 million were allegedly embezzled from the federal government. The case alleges that several nonprofits defrauded the federal government of money meant to feed underprivileged children. Instead of feeding children, the defendants allegedly embezzled the money and spent it on personal items including real estate, flashy cars, and luxury vacations.

Sponsor organizations like Feeding Our Future received the federal funds, and then distributed them to smaller groups—also known as food sites—that were supposed to feed children. 

The alleged fraud was simple at its foundation: Some organizations along the money chain reported serving more meals than they actually did—or completely invented their numbers without ever serving meals—in order to receive more federal reimbursement dollars.

Below is a list of the five defendants who have pleaded guilty: 

  1. Bekam Merdassa, 40, co-ran Youth Inventors Lab, a shell company that used Feeding Our Future as its sponsor. Bekam pleaded guilty on October 13 to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He admitted in court 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 between December 2020 and June 2021.

  2. Hadith Yusuf Ahmed, 33, previously worked for Feeding Our Future monitoring food sites enrolled in the federal Child Nutrition Programs through Feeding Our Future. Hadith pleaded guilty on October 13 to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He admitted to accepting $1 million in kickbacks from food sites in exchange for enrolling them in the federal food programs. He also admitted to starting a shell company called Southwest Metro Youth that received $1.1 million by falsely claiming to feed 2,000 children a day. He told a judge that he didn’t know how many children Southwest Metro Youth actually fed during the pandemic, but that it was “nowhere close to 2,000.”

  3. Hanna Marekegn, 40, owned Brava Cafe, a Minneapolis restaurant. She pleaded guilty on October 13 to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She told the court that Brava received $7.1 million in federal food-aid money by claiming to serve more than two million meals between September 2020 and January 2022. She did not know how many meals Brava actually served but admitted that she inflated the numbers. She also admitted to giving more than $150,000 in bribes to Feeding Our Future employees in exchange for enrolling her restaurant in the food programs. “I made a mistake,” she told the court as she wept. 

  4. Abdul Abubakar Ali, 40, co-ran the Youth Inventors Lab food site. He pleaded guilty on October 26 to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He admitted that Youth Inventors Lab never served a single meal but claimed to serve 1.3 million meals in order to receive $3 million in federal food-aid money. 

  5. Anab Awad, 53, headed the nonprofit Multiple Community Services, which ran five food sites in Minneapolis, Osseo, and Faribault. She pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud for fraudulently obtaining $9.3 million of food-aid money. Anab claimed her organization served 3.8 million meals, but admitted in court that she served only a fraction of that number.

  6. Liban Yasin Alishire, 42, claimed to serve 870,000 meals during 2020 and 2021 through the Child Nutrition Programs at two nonprofits he helped run: Community Enhancement Services and Lake Street Kitchen. Federal prosecutors say Liban fraudulently claimed $2.4 million in federal food-aid money, keeping $714,000 of that money for himself. He pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of money laundering. Liban agreed to pay $714,000 in restitution and forfeit a resort he owns in Kenya, an apartment unit in Kenya, a Ford F150 pickup, and a boat and trailer.

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...