MINNEAPOLIS — Most of the four dozen people accused of a $250 million scheme to defraud federal child nutrition programs are not jailed as the case spreads out.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis said three of the suspects had left the country, but prosecutors still posed no risk of fleeing most of the others and did not ask judges to arrest them.
Authorities allege that Aimee Bock, who founded a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future, conspired with taxpayers for $250 million that was supposed to finance meals for needy children during the pandemic. Investigators say Bock and 47 others set up fake food websites, filled out fake refund forms, and then spent the unjustly earned proceeds on real estate, luxury cars and travel.
Bock denied all charges Tuesday and left the courthouse after the government refused to request his arrest.
st. Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at St. Thomas University, said it is unusual for defendants to be jailed, even in major fraud cases. He said detention is usually reserved for people accused of terrorism or drug charges.
But Osler said prosecutors would seek detention if they believed there was a risk of escape. The US Attorney’s Office said three of the Feeding Our Future defendants, Abdikerm Eidleh, Abdiwahab Aftin and Fahad Nur, had already left the country and others had tried.
During hearings on Thursday, Magistrate David Schultz ordered Abdiaziz Farah and Mohamed Jama Ismail to remain in Sherburne County Prison.
The FBI confiscated their passports during raids in January, and officials said the men with business partners lied on their new passport applications. Agents arrested Ismail in Minneapolis-St. Paul went to the airport while trying to fly to Kenya in April. He later pleaded guilty to passport fraud charges. Farah pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors also expressed concern after another defendant – Mekfira Hussein – bought a one-way ticket to Ethiopia on Tuesday, the day the indictments were announced. Among other things, Hussein allegedly wrote a $93,000 check to a Porsche dealer with stolen money.
However, after Schultz assured the court that they had handed over their passports, he ordered the release of Hussein and the other two defendants. The judge warned Hussein that law enforcement “will spare no effort to find you and then bring you back” if he tries to escape.
After the hearing, Hussein’s lawyer, Jason Steck, said his client had never posed a flight risk and planned the trip weeks in advance after learning that his father-in-law was sick.
“He had no intention of fleeing the country. He was going to visit a sick relative,” Steck said. “And when he found out that the FBI had visited his house. [when] He wasn’t at home, he called me and then called the FBI and he voluntarily surrendered right away.”
But the case was more complex for another defendant. Liban Yasin Alishire is accused of stealing $1.6 million and spending some of it on luxury properties in Kenya.
During a lengthy custody hearing, IRS agent Aaron Daniels said that when he went to his home to arrest Alishire, he didn’t show up at the door first, then said, “I don’t know, I don’t have a door.” He asked for his passport. But Alishire’s wife finally delivered.
Prosecutor Joseph Teirab said the initial reluctance to cooperate and extensive foreign relations and property made Alishire an escape risk. But defense attorney Matthew Forsgren said his client never tried to escape.
Eventually, Schultz ordered Alishire’s release, but said he must remain in jail until at least Monday before prosecutors have an opportunity to appeal that decision.
Unlike defendants in state courts, those in the federal system are not required to deposit money to get out of jail before trial. They are usually released after promising to return to court under threat of detention. Law professor Mark Osler said the vast majority did.
“I can tell you that as a federal prosecutor, I was probably a little surprised to see everyone show up,” Osler said. Now of course this is happening.”
Osler noted that federal authorities have more power to restrict and control travel than their state counterparts, and that power has increased over the past two decades.