Witnesses in Feeding Our Future trial testify they saw no meals served

A park supervisor didn't see any lines of children getting meals at a Shakopee park during the COVID-19 pandemic, he testified Monday. Neither did an Apple Valley gas station owner at the park next to her business. And while a few families picked up groceries in a Minneapolis parking lot, it wasn't the thousands of meals claimed to be distributed there, an office building worker testified.

Prosecutors in the federal Feeding Our Future trial called a string of witnesses to testify about what they saw — or didn't see — at meal distribution sites tied to seven defendants on trial, accused of stealing money meant to feed children in need.

"I saw no meals whatsoever," said William Walker, who was the site supervisor at The Landing (formerly Historic Murphy's Landing) in Shakopee, where defendants claimed to have served thousands of meals a month.

Prosecutors allege the seven defendants, who have ties to a Shakopee restaurant, Empire Cuisine & Market, took advantage of the pandemic and inflated the number of meals they claimed to serve to low-income children. Instead, prosecutors allege the six men and one woman pocketed millions of dollars in federal reimbursements.

The trial is the first one since the FBI raided St. Anthony nonprofit Feeding Our Future more than two years ago. In all, 70 people have been charged or indicted in what prosecutors say is one of the largest pandemic-related fraud schemes in the country, totaling more than $250 million. Of the 70 people, 18 have pleaded guilty.

The trial involves seven defendants — Said Shafii Farah, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur — who have been charged with wire fraud, money laundering and other crimes.

They collectively received more than $40 million for submitting claims for more than 18 million meals. Their organizations were overseen by Feeding Our Future and a St. Paul nonprofit called Partners in Nutrition.

Defense attorneys pointed out that all five witnesses Monday were first contacted by federal agents a month or two ago, relying on witnesses to recall details from three or four years ago.

School leader testifies

Like a lot of schools, Shakopee schools delivered meals directly to students by school bus and set up a pick-up location for families to grab take-home meals when the pandemic shuttered in-person learning in early 2020.

On Monday, Bill Menozzi, director of finance and operations at Shakopee Public Schools, testified that he never saw or heard about other organizations serving meals to the 10 low-income housing sites where the suburban district, which has 7,800 students, delivered breakfasts and lunches. He added that it wasn't logistically feasible to deliver so many meals there.

"I don't believe that would be possible," Menozzi said. "Those numbers are significantly higher than what we delivered to the site."

At one low-income apartment building, for instance, Empire claimed to serve 31,000 meals a month but the school district distributed about 800 meals a month, he said.

Defense attorneys have cited the hundreds of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers that relaxed rules to get more food to children during the pandemic when schools closed, including allowing bundles of seven days' worth of meals to be distributed at once. They've said that's part of why clients reported rapidly escalating numbers of meals.

Through cross-examination, defense attorneys countered that Menozzi couldn't have observed the housing sites at all hours and questioned his knowledge of the programs at the center of the case, which are separate from school breakfasts and lunches.

Defense attorneys questioned Menozzi on Monday about the fact that there are hundreds of school-aged children in Shakopee who don't attend the school district, so he couldn't know where they got their meals.

"If meals had been picked up or delivered, we would've heard that," Menozzi countered.

Nearby at The Landing, Walker testified he never saw any meals served or delivery trucks at the small park along the Minnesota River bluffs. The historic buildings were closed to visitors and the one picnic pavilion wasn't available to rent for weddings or other events because of the pandemic.

"Any large group of people my staff would've interacted with," he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chelsea Walcker ticked off the numbers of meals that Empire claimed to serve there in 2020 — first 3,000 meals a month in July, then 5,400 the next month and 14,260 meals by December.

"I didn't see any meals served at The Landing," Walker said.

John Ruhland, who oversaw maintenance at the park, testified he never saw any meals distributed either. Defense attorneys questioned that both men couldn't speak to what happened outside the park boundaries.

In Apple Valley, Damaris Graffunder, who owns a gas station next to Scott Park where defendants claimed to serve 1,500 children a day, testified she never saw anyone handing out or preparing meals at the park.

She said she saw a truck deliver boxes of potatoes, onions and other produce four or five times outside an adjacent day care, but only a "few people" attended, and it wasn't the numbers defendants claimed — 22,000 to 62,000 meals a month in 2021.

"That's a lot," she said. "If there were a lot of people there, I'd have known."

In Minneapolis, Oldemar Lopez testified he didn't see long lines of people at his office building, which also housed a food distribution site. He said he saw five or six families pick up food in the parking lot, but not the 89,000 meals a month the site claimed to serve in early 2021.

"It was a few, not hundreds [of people]," he said.

Clayton Carlson, who represents Said Farah, argued that Lopez didn't witness any weekend food distributions and he doesn't know how many meals were in each bag people received. If 26 to 50 people a day picked up seven days' worth of meals for multiple children, Carlson said that could quickly add up to thousands of meals.

The trial continues Tuesday.