July 12th, 2024

Feds charge 5, including man acquitted at trial, for attempting to bribe Minnesota juror with $120K

By Michael Goldberg, The Associated Press on June 26, 2024.


Five people were charged on Wednesday for trying to bribe a juror in one of the country’s largest pandemic aid fraud cases with a bag of $120,000 in cash, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI announced Wednesday.

The bribe attempt, which Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Thompson previously called “an attack on our criminal justice system,” brought renewed attention to the trial of seven Minnesota defendants accused of coordinating to steal more than $40 million from a federal program that was supposed to feed children during the coronavirus pandemic. Five of the defendants were convicted earlier this month, but the bribe scheme disrupted the trial and sent federal authorities racing to uncover who was responsible.

According to an FBI agent’s affidavit, a woman rang the doorbell at the home of “Juror #52″ in the Minneapolis suburb of Spring Lake Park the night before the case went to the jury. A relative answered the door and was handed a gift bag with a curly ribbon and images of flowers and butterflies. The woman said it was a “present” for the juror.

“The woman told the relative to tell Juror #52 to say not guilty tomorrow and there would be more of that present tomorrow,” the agent wrote. “After the woman left, the relative looked in the gift bag and saw it contained a substantial amount of cash.”

The juror called police right after she got home and gave them the bag, which held stacks of $100, $50 and $20 bills totaling around $120,000.

The woman who left the bag knew the juror’s first name, the agent said. Names of the jurors have not been made public, but the list of people with access to it included prosecutors, defense lawyers – and the seven defendants.

After the juror reported the bribe attempt, the judge ordered all seven defendants to surrender their cellphones so that investigators could look for evidence. A second juror who was told about the bribe also was dismissed. The FBI investigated the attempted bribe for weeks, raiding the homes of several of the defendants’ homes. A federal judge also ordered all seven taken into custody and sequestered the jury.

Seventy people have been charged in federal court for their alleged roles in the pandemic fraud scheme that prosecutors say centered on a nonprofit called Feeding Our Future. In addition to the five convictions in early June, eighteen other defendants have already pleaded guilty. Trials are still pending for the others.

Federal prosecutors say the conspiracy exploited rules that were kept lax so the economy wouldn’t crash during the pandemic. The FBI began digging into it in the spring of 2021. The defendants allegedly produced invoices for meals never served, ran shell companies, laundered money, indulged in passport fraud and accepted kickbacks. More than $250 million in federal funds were taken overall in the Minnesota scheme and only about $50 million of it has been recovered, authorities say.

The money came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was administered by the state, which funneled the funds through partners including Feeding Our Future. The Minnesota Legislature’s watchdog arm found that the state education department provided inadequate oversight of the federal program, which opened the door to the theft.

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