Muse Mohamed is seen entering the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis for a pretrial hearing on May 5, 2022. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Testimony Monday in the federal perjury trial of campaign volunteer Muse Mohamud Mohamed made clear for the first time whom he was trying to help: state Senator Omar Fateh.

Muse is the only person to face charges in connection with a federal investigation into certain uses of the “agent delivery process” to cast votes in the August 11, 2020 primary election in Minneapolis. He is charged with two counts of lying to a grand jury about how he handled absentee ballots.

On Monday, the first day of the trial, prosecutors told jurors to focus on the allegedly false testimony Muse gave a federal grand jury last year. But the case has broader implications for Minnesota politics and elections. It touches sitting politicians and at least one candidate running this year for the Minnesota Senate. And for some, it has inflamed tensions between federal authorities and members of the Somali community. Some voters told Sahan Journal they felt intimidated when FBI agents questioned them about a 2020 city council election. One witness expressed frustration with being asked to answer the same questions repeatedly.

“Don’t call me again and don’t ask me any more questions and don’t come to my home,” witness Nasro Jama told the court during her testimony. “I don’t know these guys you are always talking about.”

Muse allegedly mishandled absentee ballots for Nasro, Abdiriman Muse, and a third voter, according to prosecutors. Nasro and Abdiriman testified Monday that they did not know Muse and had not signed the forms he delivered to the city elections office in their names. The third voter has not taken the witness stand.

A jury of 11 women and three men were seated Monday before opening statements and testimony began in the afternoon. The trial in downtown Minneapolis is expected to last through Wednesday.

On the first day of the trial, U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel swore in the jury, prosecution and defense attorneys made opening statements, and the prosecution began to call witnesses.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Muñoz, the prosecutor, told jurors in her opening statements that the “agent delivery process” is designed for voters who intend to vote in person, but are unable to at the last minute because of a disability or incapacitating health problems.

Those voters can fill out a form to request that an agent—that is, a person of their choice—pick up a blank absentee ballot for them to fill out, and then deliver the completed ballot in a sealed envelope to the elections office, Muñoz said. They must also certify that they have a “preexisting relationship” with the agent—meaning, they have to know that person already. The process is only available in the seven days leading up to an election.

The grand jury that ultimately indicted Muse wanted to find out if some ballots had been submitted through this process without voters’ permission, said Muñoz, the prosecutor.

Despite the complications of election law, Muñoz urged the jury to focus on the perjury charge. “This case is about lying under oath,” she said.

In his approximately one-minute-long opening statement, Muse’s attorney, Charlie Clippert, invoked the name of the case. “United States of America versus Muse Mohamed,” he said. “Just think about that.”

He told jurors to pay close attention to all of the witnesses, testimony, and exhibits. At the end of the trial, he said, they would see the government had not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Federal juries are made up of residents from across Minnesota. Thirteen of the jurors appeared to be white; one seemed to be Latina.

Nasro and Abdiriman then testified, telling the court they did not recognize the paperwork that had been filled out with their names, signatures, and personal information.

Nasro said she always votes in person. Election records show that the absentee ballot Muse returned on her behalf in August 2020 was rejected because she had already voted in person in that election.

Abdiriman testified that he did not vote in the primary at all. He said he did not ask Muse to act as an agent and pointed to multiple misspellings of his name and street address in the paperwork. He also testified that he was not in poor health in August 2020, though the box for “incapacitating health reasons or a disability” was checked on the agent delivery request form. 

Documents prosecutors presented in court showed that Muse had signed the city’s log to pick up an absentee ballot for Abdiriman, but never returned one.

Absentee voting increased dramatically in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, testified Jon Martin, the supervisor of election administration for the city of Minneapolis. Votes cast through the “agent delivery process” made up a small subset of those absentee ballots–about 500 of 84,000 total absentee votes cast in Minneapolis in August 2020.

That’s three or four times the number of votes that came in via the “agent delivery process” just a few months later for the November 2020 general election, Martin said: that is, the presidential election.

‘I didn’t think I was doing anything illegal’

Mustafa Hassan, a 34-year-old lab scientist, grew up in the Twin Cities and lived in Eagan during the summer of 2020. He testified that he wanted to volunteer for the campaign of now–Senator Omar Fateh because it was “a historic moment for the Somali community.” After winning in November 2020, Omar would become the first Somali American and Muslim to serve in the Minnesota Senate.

Mustafa told the court that Muse, his friend from high school, called him repeatedly to volunteer for Omar’s campaign. For the most part, Mustafa was too busy. But he made time to volunteer on the day of the primary election–August 11, 2020.

In that election, Omar was challenging incumbent Jeff Hayden in the primary to represent Senate District 62, which encompasses much of south Minneapolis. Because of Minneapolis’ heavily Democratic voting base, the winner of the Democratic primary typically wins the general election in November. Omar won the primary election that day in August by nearly 2,000 votes.

Mustafa recalled arriving at the campaign office and seeing Muse. He expected to knock on doors or drive voters to the polls. Instead, he testified, he was led to a back room where people were putting together envelopes.

He said did not know the people in the room and does not remember their names. He testified that they gave him three envelopes to deliver to the city elections and voter services center, and that he did not know the three voters whose names were on the envelopes.

“I didn’t think I was doing anything illegal, obviously,” Mustafa said.

This witness publicly connected Muse to Omar’s campaign for the first time since legal proceedings began.

Sahan Journal previously reviewed a Facebook profile for Muse Mohamud Mohamed that appeared to show him actively volunteering for Omar’s campaign in 2020. The two posed for a photo together in an apparent victory celebration on August 14. In another post, Muse said his sister is Zaynab Mohamed, now the DFL-endorsed candidate for a neighboring state Senate district in Minneapolis.

That Facebook profile disappeared in January, hours after Sahan Journal asked Omar and Zaynab about it. Omar has not responded to repeated Sahan Journal requests for comment.

In a statement to Sahan Journal, Zaynab confirmed that Muse is her brother.

“As a candidate for public office, it is my responsibility to be fully transparent and honest with the people I aim to represent,” she said. “In recent days, a pair of articles were written that mentioned my brother, Muse Mohamed. Muse is currently on trial for two counts of perjury before a federal grand jury related to an investigation of absentee ballots in the 2020 primary. I am not involved in this trial, nor am I a subject of the investigation.”

Omar’s Senate race does not appear to be the federal investigation’s only focus. Voters in the Ward 6 city council special election, also held on August 11, 2020, told Sahan Journal they were questioned by the FBI. They said the interaction made them feel intimidated and less likely to vote.

None of the three voters whose ballots Muse allegedly handled, however, resided in Ward 6. They lived in a different part of Senate District 62.

‘I told you before’

Clippert, Muse’s defense attorney, tried to sow doubt about the prosecution’s case in his cross-examination of witnesses. He pressed Martin, the city elections supervisor, on the changes made for voting at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of a definition for “preexisting relationship.” 

He asked a Somali interpreter who translated for Muse during the 2021 grand jury about different dialects within the Somali language. He questioned Mustafa, the campaign volunteer, on how he never really looked at the envelopes he was given. 

Judge Brasel had previously denied Clippert’s motion to allow testimony about the FBI’s relationship with the Somali community. But Clippert asked Nasro what her reaction was when the FBI came to her home.

She’d never had any interaction with the police, let alone the FBI, she said. “I was not scared because I was innocent and did not do anything wrong,” she said. “They just asked me questions and I answered.”

Nasro aired her frustrations with being asked the same questions repeatedly—by the FBI in her home, before the grand jury, and now in court.

“I told you before,” she said over and over again.

By the time she testified at 4 p.m., she had been waiting for five hours. She needed to pick her kids up from school, she told the court. And she did not understand why she had to keep telling the same people that she does not know Muse Mohamed.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.