7 Minnesotans accused in massive scheme to defraud pandemic food program to stand trial

MINNEAPOLIS– Opening statements are expected Monday in the fraud trial of seven people charged in what federal prosecutors have called a massive scheme to exploit lax rules during the COVID-19 pandemic and steal from a program intended to provide meals to children in Minnesota.

The seven will be the first of 70 defendants to stand trial in connection with the alleged scam. Eighteen others have already pleaded guilty.

Prosecutors have said the seven collectively stole more than $40 million in a conspiracy that cost taxpayers $250 million — one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the country. Federal authorities say they have recovered about $50 million.

Prosecutors say only a fraction of the money went to low-income children, with the rest spent on luxury cars, jewelry, travel and property.

The food assistance came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was administered by the state Department of Education. Nonprofits and other partners under the program were required to serve meals to children.

Two of the groups involved, Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition, were small nonprofits before the pandemic, but in 2021 each paid out about $200 million. Prosecutors allege they created invoices for meals that were never served, ran shell companies, laundered money, indulged in passport fraud and accepted kickbacks.

An Associated Press analysis published last June documented how thieves across the country looted billions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars in the biggest frenzy in American history. The money was intended to fight the worst pandemic in a century and stabilize an economy in freefall.

But the AP found that fraudsters may have stolen more than $280 billion, while another $123 billion was wasted or misspent. Combined, the loss represented 10% of the $4.3 trillion the government disbursed in COVID relief last fall. Nearly 3,200 suspects have been charged, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. About $1.4 billion in stolen pandemic aid has been seized.

The suspects on trial Monday before U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel in Minneapolis are Abdiaziz Shafii Farah; Mohamed Jama Ismail; Abdimajid Mohamed Nur; Shafii Farah said; Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin; Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff; and Hayat Mohamed Nur. They have all pleaded not guilty. Their trial is expected to last about six weeks.

“Defendants’ fraud spread and grew, like an aggressive cancer,” prosecutors wrote in a summary of their case.

Prosecutors say many of the alleged food locations were nothing more than parking lots and abandoned commercial spaces. Others appeared to be city parks, apartment complexes and community centers.

“By the time Defendants’ scheme came to light in early 2022, they claimed to have collectively served more than 18 million meals at 50 unique locations for which they fraudulently sought reimbursement of $49 million from the Federal Child Nutrition Program” , prosecutors wrote.

Among the defendants awaiting trial is Aimee Bock, the founder of Feeding our Future. She is one of fourteen suspects expected to stand trial together at a later date. Bock has maintained her innocence, saying she never stole and saw no evidence of fraud among her subcontractors.

The scandal roiled Minnesota’s 2022 legislative session and campaign.

Republicans attacked Gov. Tim Walz, saying he should have stopped the fraud sooner. But Walz pushed back, saying the state’s hands were tied by a court order in a Feeding Our Future lawsuit to resume payments despite his concerns. He said the FBI asked the state to continue the payments while the investigation continued.

The Minnesota Department of Education now has an independent inspector general with greater authority to investigate fraud and waste.