A St. Anthony woman pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing $5 million in federal funds that was intended to feed underprivileged children.
Sahra Nur, 63, pleaded guilty in federal court in downtown Minneapolis to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering.
Sahra wore a tiger-patterned coat over a blue dress at her plea hearing. A soft-spoken Sahra told U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel that she was very stressed over the matter and had been taking medication and drinking heavily until two weeks ago.
“How are you today?” Brasel asked Sahra at the beginning of the proceeding.
“A little shaky,” Sahra responded.
“Are you shaky because you’re nervous?” Brasel said.
“Of course,” Sahra responded.
In a separate case, Yusuf Ali, 41, pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He admitted to stealing nearly $280,000.
Yusuf and Sahra are among the 60 suspects charged in what has become known as the Feeding Our Future case. They are the thirteenth and fourteenth defendants, respectively, to plead guilty for their roles in the fraud.
The food-aid scheme centered around the now-defunct nonprofit, Feeding Our Future, and allegedly involved dozens of suspects who stole more than $250 million from the federal government that was meant to feed underprivileged children. U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger has described the scheme as the largest coordinated COVID-19 pandemic-related fraud case in the country.
Feeding Our Future served as a sponsor, which involved receiving federal food-aid money from through the Minnesota Department of Education and then distributing that money to smaller groups that were supposed to provide ready-to-eat meals to children. The more children a group reported serving, the more money it received.
Federal prosecutors have said more charges are likely to come in the future.
According to her indictment, Sahra operated Academy for Youth Excellence, a shell company that listed S&S Catering, a commercial food company, as the supplier of its meals. Sahra was also one of S&S Catering’s owners and operators.
Federal prosecutors say S&S Catering claimed to serve 1.2 million meals to underprivileged children between December 2020 and April 2021. Sahra admitted in court that S&S Catering only prepared a fraction of those meals, yet received $6 million from the federal government.
Sahra admitted in court Thursday to pocketing just over $5 million in food-aid money, and agreed to pay it back in restitution as part of her plea deal. She also admitted working with two other defendants to use some of the money to buy a commercial building on Lake Street, where S&S Catering operated.
Her plea deal includes a recommended sentence of between 51 and 63 months in prison, as well as a fine between $20,000 and $200,000.
That recommended sentence could drop to between 41 and 51 months based on Sahra’s lack of criminal history, Brasel said. Brasel will sentence Sahra at a later date.
Sahra said in court that Feeding Our Future was her organization’s sponsor. She also named a separate sponsor that federal prosecutors have only identified in court documents as “Sponsor A.”
“Did you and your co-conspirators operate under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Jacobs asked Sahra in court on Thursday.
“Partners in Nutrition and Feeding Our Future,” Sahra replied.
“Some were under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future?” Jacobs continued.
“Both,” Sahra replied.
Partners in Nutrition, which also does business as Partners in Quality Care, is now listed as permanently closed, and a phone number for the organization was not in service when Sahan Journal attempted to call for comment for this story.
No one with Partners in Nutrition has been charged in the case, although some defendants have reported working with the organization to obtain federal food-aid money.
Feeding Our Future’s former executive director, Aimee Bock, is charged in the case.
At the end of the hearing, Sahra’s attorney, A.L. Brown, told Brasel that Sahra is planning to take a trip out of the country next month for religious and personal reasons. He said he is negotiating with federal prosecutors to see if she can travel abroad.
Brasel said if the prosecutors and Brown can come up with an agreement, she will ultimately decide whether Sahra can take the trip.
Sahra, Brown, and Jacobs declined to comment on the case after the hearing.
Yusuf, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday, admitted in court that he worked with others to enroll a shell company called Youth Inventors Lab into the federal Child Nutrition Program to pose as a food site offering meals to disadvantaged children.
According to his plea deal, Yusuf signed a “fake lease” for Youth Inventors Lab describing it to be a food site when he “knew that the location would not be used to serve meals.”
Youth Innovators Lab falsely claimed that S&S Catering was the supplier of its meals. Through this relationship, Youth Innovators Lab received more than $3 million in federal food aid dollars and claimed to serve 1.3 million meals between December 2020 and June 2021, according to the plea deal.
Yusuf personally received nearly $280,000 of the money. He agreed to pay it back to the federal government in restitution as part of his plea agreement.
Yusuf and federal prosecutors agreed to a sentence of between 15 and 21 months in prison. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Yusuf’s attorney, Kevin Riach, declined to comment on the case.