First guilty pleas expected in Feeding Our Future case: Who are they?

Fox 9 reports that three figures charged in the Feeding Our Future case are scheduled to appear in Federal court tomorrow (Thursday) and are expected to plead guilty. It is not clear to what extent, if any, they have cooperated with the authorities in the case.

They are Nos. 45, 46, and 47 of the 49 individuals charged in the case, so far. Each is charged with one count of wire fraud. The hearings are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. CT.

We will take them in reverse order. Defendant No. 47 is Hanna Marakegn of Edina. She owns the Brava Cafe on East Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. (Not to be confused with the Brava Restaurant and Cafe of Rochester, which is the subject of a separate indictment in the case.)

Marakegn is accused of receiving more than $5 million in Federal free-food money in the case. A property she owns in Medina and a condominium in Edina are subject to forfeiture.

Marakegn owns two other businesses. Along with Mekfira Hussein, Defendant No. 48 in the case, Marakegn co-owns the Forever Friendship Adult Day Center Inc. of St. Paul. Forever Friendship is a currently licensed facility under the state Department of Human Services (DHS). Over the past three years, Forever Friendship has received a modest $41,000 in reimbursements from DHS.

According to records maintained by the state Department of Education (MDE), Forever Friendship was registered under the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) as a food distribution site in 2021. It was registered under Feeding Our Future’s rival, Partners in Nutrition, with a maximum daily capacity of 60.

Today in Federal court, a judge denied Mekfira’s request to leave the country.

Marakegn owns a third company, Laneway Transport Inc. Laneway is a U.S. Department of Transportation licensed trucking company.

Her Brava Cafe was registered as its own food distribution site in 2020 under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future in the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). The site had a listed maximum capacity of 5,000 children per day.

In 2022, Brava was registered only as a vendor to two SFSP sites. One was a Mekfira Hussein Shamsia Hopes location in Brooklyn Center, with a listed capacity of 4,000 children per day.

The second location was registered under the St. Paul nonprofit House of Refuge Outreach. According to media reports, this location was never active under Feeding Our Future. Instead, this location ultimately did business under the Partners in Nutrition banner. House of Refuge has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

Hadith Ahmed of Eden Prairie is Defendant No. 46 and a former employee of Feeding Our Future. Two other Feeding employees–founder Aimee Bock (No. 1) and Abdikerm Eidleh (No. 2)–have also been charged in the case. Eidleh is believed to have fled the country.

The Feds have seized more than $300,000 from bank accounts owned by Ahmed. Ahmed’s role on the alleged fraud is described in the second indictment in the case, beginning on page 9, paragraph 30. The second indictment covers figures from the Empire Cuisine/ThinkTechAct/Mind Foundry network.

The Feds claim that Ahmed used his company, Mizal Consulting LLC, founded in January 2020, as a vehicle for receiving bribes and kickbacks in the case (page 33, paragraph 140). The indictment lists payments totaling more than $120,000 as being received by Mizal Consulting from this group (p. 36).

That same indictment lists another Feeding Our Future employee, identified only by her initials, “I.M.” She is accused of receiving a $250,000 bribe/kickback (p. 33, paragraph 139).

The FBI accuses Mukhtar Shariff of Bloomington, Defendant No. 21, of making the quarter-million-dollar payment to I.M.

Shariff is the owner of Bloomington’s Afrique cultural center. Among his other holdings is A&E Logistics Inc., a trucking company based at his Bloomington business address. A&E has not been named in any FBI documents and shares a similar name with other trucking companies.

One possibility for “I.M.” previously worked in Minneapolis, owning and operating childcare facilities. That I.M. and her spouse also appear on a list of political donors, alongside other figures who have been charged in the case.

There is more extensive discussion of Ahmed’s role in the first FBI search warrant made public in the case back in January (p. 50, para. 155). Ahmed had incorporated a nonprofit called Southwest Metro Youth in October 2020. The FBI alleged that Ahmed took in over $1.1 million from the free-food program through this vehicle.

Ahmed also appears in the JigJiga indictment (paragraph 21). The FBI alleges that Ahmed received $200,000 in kickbacks from this group (para. 24e).

Bekim Merdassa of Inver Grove Heights, Defendant No. 45, is the founder of the nonprofit Youth Inventor’s Lab. His role in the case is described in the third indictment, which covers the S&S Catering group of Minneapolis.

According to records on file at MDE, the Youth Inventor’s Lab location was 2434 University Avenue, St. Paul. It was one of the addresses searched by the FBI back in January.

It was registered under Feeding Our Future through CACFP and listed a maximum daily capacity of 500 in 2020. In 2021 the listed capacity increased to 3,000 children per day.

The FBI alleges that Merdassa operated the site with two other men, Defendants Nos. 29 and 30. Merdassa’s role in the alleged scheme is outlined in the third indictment beginning on page 14, paragraph v. According to the FBI, Youth Inventor’s Lab claimed to have served a total of 1.5 million meals out of the storefront pictured above in a seven-month period. The effort pulled on a little over $3 million.

A separate nonprofit, Epic Therapy, was registered at this same address to Defendant No. 30. It was registered under the sponsorship of CACFP under Partners in Nutrition with a maximum daily capacity of 5,500. Although this entity is mentioned in the search warrant, it does not appear in any of the indictments.

The indictment (p. 28, para. x) mentions the involvement of a company called Franklyn Transportation in the alleged Youth Inventor’s Lab scheme. Quoting from the indictment,

Franklyn Transportation was incorporated by an unindicted co-conspirator on or about November 19, 2020. The registered office was a residential apartment unit in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The FBI appears to be referring to Franklyn Transportation LLC. This company is a trucking firm registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

To get a sense of how complex this case is, the U.S. Attorney has included this paragraph in one of its filings,