Almost all defendants in Feeding Our Future fraud trial will rest their case without calling any witnesses (2024)

In a surprise move, attorneys for six of the seven defendants in the Feeding Our Future trial said Tuesday that they'll rest their case without calling any witnesses.

Federal prosecutors finished their case Tuesday after four weeks of testimony from more than 30 witnesses. They presented 1,300 exhibits to the jury in the high-profile case, seeking to show that defendants defrauded the federal government out of millions of dollars meant to feed children in need.

Defense attorneys indicated in court documents that they had their own reams of paperwork as well as photos and videos of meal distributions to show that their clients — who all have ties to a Shakopee restaurant — provided real food to real children across Minnesota.

But on Tuesday, six of the seven defense teams said they will tell the jury Wednesday that they're resting their case without calling any witnesses. The trial is the first one in a broader investigation that's led to charges against 70 people in what prosecutors say is one of the largest pandemic-related fraud cases in the country, totaling more than $250 million.

Frederick Goetz, who represents Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff, said he will call witnesses starting Wednesday, including a University of Minnesota professor, representatives from a national wholesaler, members of a Bloomington mosque that Shariff allegedly distributed food to and investors in Shariff's business, Afrique Hospitality Group, which opened a Bloomington event center.

Goetz told U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel that, instead of the case stretching another two weeks if all seven defense teams had called witnesses, his case will be presented over a few days. That means closing arguments in the trial could start early next week.

Prosecutors allege the defendants defrauded the government by creating shell companies to launder money, submitted rosters of made-up children's names and inflated meal claims to receive more than $40 million for 18 million meals at 50 food sites spanning from Rochester to St. Cloud.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools, day cares and nonprofits for feeding low-income children after school and during the summer. Instead, prosecutors said, defendants spent the money on lavish expenses, including a $1 million lakefront Prior Lake property, luxury cars and gold jewelry.

Almost all defendants in Feeding Our Future fraud trial will rest their case without calling any witnesses (1)

Almost all defendants in Feeding Our Future fraud trial will rest their case without calling any witnesses (2)

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Defendant Said Shafii Farah, center, walks into the United States District Court with his attorneys Clayton Carlson, left, and Steve Schleicher during the first day of jury selection, April 22.

Prosecutors have called FBI and IRS agents and accountants to testify along with bankers and meal program experts, witnesses who saw few to no meals distributed and a former Feeding Our Future employee who testified about a "booming" fraud scheme known for rampant kickbacks and bribes.

One FBI forensic accountant testified that she traced defendants' 300 bank accounts and other records to discover that about $3 million out of $30 million sent to the restaurant at the center of the case — Empire Cuisine and Market — went to food purchases, including to supply the restaurant, not to feed kids.

On Tuesday, Goetz said Shariff will decide whether to take the stand in his own defense after witnesses testify. The other defendants — Said Shafii Farah, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin and Hayat Mohamed Nur — told Brasel they will not testify.

They were charged in 2022 with 43 counts, including wire fraud and money laundering. Their food sites were largely overseen by St. Paul nonprofit Partners in Nutrition (also known as Partners in Quality Care), as well as St. Anthony nonprofit Feeding Our Future, which is at the center of the case.

Throughout the five-week trial, defense attorneys have shown photos of bags of groceries defendants gave out, with cereal, juice, potatoes and other produce matching invoices, and photos of people lined up outside a Minneapolis event venue to get food. They've sought to cast doubt on the thoroughness of the FBI investigation, blasting investigators for not visiting food sites to verify if meals were in fact served, and sought to discredit some witnesses.

On Tuesday, defense attorneys cross-examined the prosecution's final witness, FBI forensic accountant Lacra Blackwell, questioning her testimony about tracing $41 million received by the defendants back to $8 million in personal expenses, including buying real estate, new cars and an $11,000 vacation to a Maldives ocean villa, mostly derived from federal funds.

Defense attorneys sought to distance their clients from the allegations, pointing out that their client didn't initiate overseas wire transfers or sign forms. Several attorneys asked her whether there was any evidence defendants concealed their financial activity. She answered "no."


Feeding Our Future trial: What you should know as prosecutors prepare to rest their case Prosecutors will rest their case this week and defense attorneys for the seven defendants on trial will start calling their own witnesses to make their case they fed children across Minnesota.
Almost all defendants in Feeding Our Future fraud trial will rest their case without calling any witnesses (2024)


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