IRS agent testifies about ‘peculiar’ names on food distribution sites in Feeding Our Future trial

Three children, all named “John Doe,” were said to have received free food. So did a kid named “Friday Donations” month after month. And a child named “Getsaname Hester” was listed more than a dozen times on the attendance lists of food distribution locations operated by defendants in the first Feeding Our Future trial.

None of those names matched the names of students enrolled in 20 public school districts in Minnesota, an IRS special agent, Joshua Parks, testified Monday in the high-profile criminal trial of seven suspects linked to a Shakopee restaurant.

“It looks like the rosters are being replicated,” Parks said.

On Monday, early in the fourth week of testimony, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Ebert questioned Parks about the “peculiar” names in the rosters that defendants submitted to receive approximately $40 million in federal reimbursements for feeding children in need.

Prosecutors have called more than 30 witnesses to make their case that suspects defrauded the federal government in a get-rich-quick scheme, stealing money for programs designed to reimburse schools, daycares and nonprofits for feeding children with a low income after school and in the summer. .

Instead, prosecutors allege that the defendants grossly inflated the number of meals they claimed to serve and submitted false invoices and fabricated attendance sheets to receive millions of dollars spent on luxury homes, cars and jewelry.

The seven defendants are the first to go to trial among the 70 people charged in the sprawling case, which prosecutors say is one of the largest pandemic fraud cases in the country, totaling more than $250 million. Of the 70 people, 18 have pleaded guilty.

Defendants Said Shafii Farah, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur have been charged with bank fraud, money laundering and other crimes. They have ties to Empire Cuisine & Market in Shakopee, which was overseen by St. Anthony nonprofit Feeding Our Future and St. Paul nonprofit Partners in Nutrition.

No defense attorneys cross-examined Parks on Monday, but they have previously argued there is no evidence their clients committed a crime. They said they didn’t have to check students’ IDs and instead used a clicker to count the number of people arriving. pick up meals.

On Monday, Ebert showed the jury pages and pages of children’s names, listed in the same order, reportedly receiving free meals every week, month after month. He questioned Parks about strange names, including “Serious Problem,” “Inactive,” “Angel Albino” on attendance rosters, none of which Parks said matched public school enrollment data but showed up repeatedly on the rosters.

“I thought that was important,” Parks said, adding that he assumed the lists wouldn’t match every day because a child might be sick or on vacation. “I wouldn’t expect a child to attend every week.”

Parks testified that he reviewed more than 120 schedules from the defendants’ food distribution locations and compared them to 193,000 students enrolled in 20 area public school districts — from Minneapolis and Mankato to St. Paul and St. Cloud. These school district lists often matched the schedules of the defendants’ food distribution locations less than 10% of the time.

Parks said he also compared schedules from several food locations in the Twin Cities, several of which showed the same children receiving snacks and dinner at the same time. For example, attendance records for food locations at an Apple Valley park and a Bloomington mosque included about 700 identical names.

In Faribault, about 13% of names on a food site list matched the school district’s data. In Shakopee, less than 3% of the names defendants provided matched school records. In the north metro, while a park on the border of Lexington and Circle Pines was closed for construction, where defendants allegedly served 2,505 children, the names of only seven Centennial School District students matched.

In Bloomington, four of the 999 names on the defendant list matched the Bloomington Public Schools list of more than 10,000 students, Parks said.

“It was important,” Parks said. “Four of the 999 were surprising.”

Witnesses have said they saw few, if any, meal distributions at the defendants’ locations. Defense attorneys have argued that families from elsewhere in Minnesota could pick up a bag containing seven days of free food. This is why school district schedules may not match food site lists and why the number of meals distributed increased rapidly.

Defense attorneys have said their clients had to navigate a complex federal program with rapidly changing rules during the pandemic and served real food to real children, earning a fair profit as for-profit companies.

Parks was questioned Monday after another IRS agent concluded his testimony and two bank representatives testified about checks received and sent by defendants. Testimony in the trial, which began April 22, continues Tuesday.