More than one year after federal prosecutors filed charges in the nation’s biggest coordinated COVID-19 relief fraud scheme, nearly a quarter of the defendants have pleaded guilty, and none has yet gone to trial.
But prosecutors and defendants are preparing for at least two major trials next year, according to legal documents.
Sixty defendants have been charged for allegedly diverting millions of federal dollars intended to feed underprivileged children toward personal expenses, from luxury homes to high-priced cars to a beach resort in Kenya. Of the 14 who’ve pleaded guilty, none has yet been sentenced.
While prosecutors have centered the case on Feeding Our Future, the defunct nonprofit that received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money and distributed it to dozens of nonprofits, they haven’t formally charged anyone who worked for the similar nonprofit, Partners in Quality Care, which federal prosecutors have indirectly identified in the scheme.
None of this surprises Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. For starters, he noted how the case revolves around at least $250 million in government fraud, making it far more complex than an average criminal case.
“Conspiracy cases take a while,” said Daly, who formerly defended criminal cases in state and federal court. “They’re harder to prove than a robbery case or a burglary case where one guy goes to a store with a gun and takes the money. Those cases are easier to prove than who’s connected to whom, what they said, how much money was involved in various transfers.”
The alleged fraud involved sponsor organizations like Feeding Our Future receiving federal funds through the Minnesota Department of Education. The sponsor organizations then distributed those funds to food vendors and food sites, which were supposed to provide ready-to-eat meals to local children.
Several organizations in the money chain reported serving thousands more meals than they actually did, or simply never served any at all in order to receive more federal reimbursement dollars, according to prosecutors. Those funds were then passed through various shell companies before allegedly being pocketed by the perpetrators.
Trials expected in 2024
Federal prosecutors and several defendants are preparing for multiple trials next year. But in some cases, the parties disagree on when the trials should be held.
To date, only one defendant’s trial has been set—Sharon Ross, director of the House of Refuge food shelf in St. Paul, who is charged with wire fraud and money laundering. She has pleaded not guilty. Her trial is scheduled for January 22, 2024, although federal prosecutors have made motions to push it back so larger cases tied to the Feeding Our Future scheme can be tried first.
But an August 31 letter sent to U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel and signed by U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and assistant U.S. attorneys Joe Thompson, Matthew Ebert, Harry Jacobs, and Chelsea Walcker states that the prosecutors have reached out to “approximately fifty defense counsel” in the Feeding Our Future scheme.
The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment on the matter for this story.
“As to some issues, the government and the majority of defense counsel are in agreement,” the letter reads. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, total agreement could not be reached.”
The letter then states that prosecutors prefer that the biggest cases go to trial first. Prosecutors are charging several defendants together in separate indictments, and they ask Brasel to allow two trials for multiple defendants in the two biggest indictments.
The first one involves defendants Abdiaziz Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Mahad Ibrahim, Said Shafii Farah, Abdiwahab Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff, and Hayat Mohamed Noor. Four of them agree with prosecutors that they should be tried first and with an April 1, 2024 start date for the trial. But three—Abdiaziz Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, and Mahad Ibrahim—requested the earlier start date of January 8.
None of the attorneys for the three defendants requesting an earlier trial date returned phone messages and emails seeking comment for this story.
Daly, who is not involved in the case and spoke generally about criminal law, said such requests from defendants in complex criminal cases with multiple defendants are common, especially from higher-level defendants. That’s because the longer a defendant waits, the more likely it becomes that lower-level defendants will take plea bargains and agree to testify against them, he said.
“As an attorney, you say, ‘Look, we better push for a speedy trial, which we have a constitutional right to have,’” Daly said. “‘The faster we try the case, the less prepared the prosecution will be in getting all their X’s and O’s together, and still [it] might not have a full picture of what’s going on.”
This doesn’t explain why defendants in the next trial are asking for a later trial date than prosecutors are requesting. These include Aimee Bock, former executive director of Feeding Our Future and arguably the most high-profile defendant in the case, as well as former Minneapolis city senior aide Abdi Salah, Abdulkadir Nur Salah, Abdikerm Eidleh, Salim Said, Abdihakim Ahmed, Ahmed Artan, Abdikadir Mohamed, Abdinasir Abshir, Asad Abshir, Hamdi Omar, Ahmed Ghedi, and Abdirahman Ahmed, the former owner of Safari Restaurant, who is also known as “Chef Abcos.”
The prosecutors’ letter states that they are requesting an April 1 start date for this trial. The defendants, according to the letter, are asking for an unspecified fall 2024 start date.
Bock’s attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, said he asked for a later date to provide time to file motions in the case, which he said he intends to do this fall.
“Those motions will need to be responded to by the government and ruled upon by the court,” Udoibok said. “It takes time and we won’t know what we need to prepare for if we don’t get a ruling in time. We just want to build time. We thought the fall would be perfect, but we’re ready to accommodate the court.”
Udoibok added that Bock maintains her innocence and is not planning to take a plea deal.
“We’re just preparing opposition, and we hope that the jury will see it from our perspective,” he said.
Surya Saxena, the attorney for defendant Abulkadir Nur Salah, offered similar answers in a legal motion in late August. In the letter, Saxena wrote that he expects to file continuance motions “to provide sufficient time to review and consider the United States’ exceptionally voluminous disclosures before filing motions.”
Saxena added that he “sees no reason for trials to proceed in any predetermined sequence.”
“We are not aware of any rule or law that would allow the United States to choose the sequence of trials,” Saxena wrote, “particularly where the case has been designated as complex at the government’s own urging.”
Saxena did not respond to Sahan Journal’s request to comment before press time.
Federal prosecutors write that they expect each trial to last three to four weeks. Saxena, in his letter, estimates that the trial involving his client will take an extra one to two weeks.
Putting on the pressure
As for the remaining 24 defendants who haven’t pleaded guilty, the prosecutors ask Brasel to “not schedule trial dates yet.”
“Many defense counsel are in agreement with this proposal,” their letter reads. “Instead, the government proposes that the Court schedule status hearings on January 14, 2024 and May 3, 2024, following the trial of the first Feeding Our Future cases. At that time, the parties will be in a more realistic posture to say whether and when these cases should be set for trial.”
This raises the possibility of more plea deals down the line, including with even some of the defendants in the two cases currently preparing for trial. But Daly said the likelihood of every defendant taking a plea deal is low, given the large number of defendants overall.
“There’s always someone willing to take the risk” of going to trial, he said. “Maybe they figure the case is so convoluted, the jury will not understand it and have a hard time proving beyond a reasonable doubt against them.”
Daly said he also takes Luger, whose office is leading the prosecutions, at his word that he’ll charge more defendants down the line. Luger has been saying this ever since he unveiled the first fraud charges in September 2022. He charged 10 more defendants in March of this year. Federal prosecutors haven’t charged additional defendants.
Daly noted that the statute of limitations on federal conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering charges doesn’t expire until five years after the crime. This means that Luger’s office has a few more years at minimum to charge more defendants, since the alleged crimes took place from 2020 through early 2022.
“Every time he says there’s more coming, it’s the truth,” Daly said. “He’s also letting people who are unindicted know, ‘You better come forward.’”
That bleeds into another tactic from federal prosecutors seen throughout this case: indirectly implicating Partners in Quality Care, the rival nonprofit of Feeding Our Future, in the fraud scheme without charging any of its employees or former employees. In most of these cases, prosecutors refer to Partners in Quality Care as “Sponsor A” in charging documents.
But documents from a separate lawsuit, search warrant affidavits, and a federal complaint filed in May 2022 show that information in the indictments about “Sponsor A” correlate to Partners in Quality Care.
Additionally, two defendants who pleaded guilty said during their plea hearings that they had worked with either Partners or its former executive director, Kara Lomen.
The prosecutors’ tactic here is fair game, Daly said. Prosecutors used similar tactics against his criminal clients all the time.
“I sat in on some of those discussions with my clients and a couple of FBI agents and a prosecutor, and it’s really, really scary for them,” Daly said. “You take them aside and say, ‘You’re the one he’s talking about. You’re going to be indicted. You better fully cooperate.’”
An attorney for Lomen did not respond to Sahan Journal’s requests to comment before press time.
Fully cooperating means laying everything you know on the table about the crime at hand and understanding that prosecutors will charge you with a crime if they find out you’re lying or holding something back, Daly said.
“If you don’t cooperate, you’re going to get charged,” Daly said. “It’s not a pleasant thing for them to hear, but that’s how it works.”