Feeding Our Future trial opening statements

Opening statements began Monday in the first trial in the Feeding Our Future fraud case. Seven people are facing charges connected to the investigation into the theft of millions of dollars in federal funds, in what the FBI is calling the largest COVID-19 pandemic relief fraud scheme to be uncovered. 

This trial is the first of several trials where more than 70 defendants are accused of being involved in a scheme that stole more than $250 million in federal funding, which was meant to go to child nutrition programs. 

READ MORE: Feeding Our Future fraud: Jury selection underway in first trial

The defendants in this trial are Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, 33, of Savage, Mohamed Jama Ismail, 49, of Savage, Mahad Ibrahim, 46, of Lewis Center, Ohio, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, 21, of Shakopee, Said Shafii Farah, 40, of Minneapolis, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, 32, of Minneapolis, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff, 31, of Bloomington and Hayat Mohamed Nur, 25, of Eden Prairie.

The defendants face several felony charges, including wire fraud, and money laundering, while some face federal program bribery charges.

These defendants are allegedly responsible for about $40 million of the stolen funds, federal investigators believe.

The trial is expected to last six weeks. 

READ MORE: 1st 'Feeding Our Future' fraud trial to begin Monday

Here are live updates of the opening statements:

Opening statements from Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Ebert

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Ebert giving his opening statement in court. Illustration by: Cedric Hohnstadt Illustration, L.L.C. (Supplied)

"It was about this time four years ago when the world changed in an instant," Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Ebert opened. "This case is about an epic outbreak of another sort: about lying.  Lying to get money. In a word, fraud."

Ebert goes on to say the money given to the defendants was intended to feed kids, but "the defendants had a much different plan. A plan to game the system, a plan to line their pockets, a plan to manipulate and exploit a crisis."

The defendants claimed to provide more than 18 million meals throughout the state, Ebert said. He continued by saying for it to grow that fast, it would require multiple conspirators, each having a special role to play. Some were food site operators, while others pretended to supply massive amounts of food to give the appearance of legitimacy. While others created and shared fake documents and food invoices. 

"In reality, that was an illusion… a smokescreen," Ebert said. "In reality, they were just papering the fraud over." 

Ebert continued saying the defendants simply "pocketed the children's lunch money," spending it on courtside seats, expensive hotel rooms, jewelry, luxury vehicles, and homes. 

"The child food money was the defendant's golden ticket," Ebert said. 

Jurors will hear testimony from a witness who worked at Feeding Our Future and has already pleaded guilty. They will also hear from federal investigators who compared food site rosters and school district records. 

Defense attorney's opening statements

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A courtroom sketch of Abdiaziz Farah's attorney, Andrew Birrell. Illustration by: Cedric Hohnstadt Illustration, L.L.C.

From: Supplied

Andrew Birrell is the attorney for defendant Abdiaziz Farah, who allegedly used his ownership of Empire Cuisine and Market LLC and board membership with the nonprofit organization ThinkTechAct to "fraudulently obtain and misappropriate millions of dollars in federal child nutrition program funds." Abdiaziz Farah is also facing charges for providing false information while applying for a U.S. passport. 

Birrell says food programs are very complex, "but the essence of these programs is this: parents would show up at a location and receive food being distributed for free."

Defense attorneys told jurors that these were not eat-in meal locations, which is why the locations were small, arguing that they were pick-up spots. 

The defense continued to say that the USDA recruited vendors to be involved in the program because there was a profit to be made.

"The reason he [Farah] made a lot of money is because he provided a lot of meals," Birrell said. 

Patrick Cotter is the attorney for Mohamed Ismail, who is the former owner of Empire Cuisine and Market and is accused of assisting Abdiaziz Farah in stealing more than $28 million in federal funds. 

Cotter said Ismail "did not act with an intent and purpose to defraud the government," and calls the government's case a "false narrative." 

Cotter continued to say that Ismail understood he was running a business, feeding people and "yes, making a profit."

Edward Sapone is the attorney for Abdimajid Nur, who is accused of creating his company Nur Consulting LLC to assist in the money laundering for other organizations involved in the scheme. 

"This case is about food, not fraud, and lots of food, and you’re going to see evidence of that," Sapone said. "You’re going to see proof of so much food, food that was packaged and ready to be delivered."