4th defendant expected to change plea in alleged Feeding Our Future fraud scheme

A fourth defendant is expected to plead guilty Wednesday in connection with the Feeding Our Future fraud investigation, court records show.

Court documents show Abdul Abubakar Ali has a change of plea hearing set for Wednesday in federal district court. Ali was indicted on one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

According to the indictment, Abdul Ali, along with co-defendants Yusuf Bashir Ali and Bekam Merdassa, operated a nonprofit with a St. Paul address called Youth Investors Lab. The group applied to run a meal site under the sponsorship of Feeding Our Future and allegedly submitted meal sheets that claimed to have served thousands of hot meals each week — 1.5 million in total — and that they were provided by S & S Catering.

However, federal prosecutors say “only a small fraction of those meals” were ever served. In a plea hearing earlier this month, Merdassa admitted that S & S Catering never provided any meals.

In all, Youth Investors Lab received more than $3 million in Federal Child Nutrition Program funds under Feeding Our Future’s sponsorship. Of that money, $2.6 million was transferred to S & S Catering, which in turn transferred $2.2 million to Franklyn Transportation, a shell company used to launder money that prosecutors say was incorporated by “an unindicted co-conspirator.”

Read KSTP’s full Feeding Our Future coverage

The now-defunct nonprofit Feeding Our Future is accused of fraudulently receiving $250 million in federal funds that was supposed to be spent on meals for needy children.

So far, charges have been filed against 50 people for their alleged involvement in the scheme. The list of defendants includes Feeding Our Future employees and people accused of operating fraudulent meal sites who funneled the reimbursements into shell companies.

To date, three defendants have pleaded guilty in the case. On Oct. 13, Merdassa, as well as Hanna Marekegn and Hadith Yusuf Ahmed, changed their pleas to guilty. They were all charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Marekegn admitted to fraudulently operating a meal site at her restaurant, Brava Café, and receiving more than $5 million in reimbursements from Feeding Our Future and paying out $150,000 in kickbacks.

Ahmed, a Feeding Our Future employee, admitted to accepting “bribes and kickbacks” from people and businesses to stay in the program. In total, he told a judge he received more than $1 million in kickbacks, which he handled through a shell consulting firm.

He also admitted to setting up an Eden Prairie location that claimed to be serving 2,000 meals per day but actually served “nowhere close to 2,000,” he told the judge.

As part of the plea deal, Ahmed will have to pay back more than $1.1 million.