Fraud trial juror reports getting bag of $120,000 and promise of more if she’ll acquit

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A juror was dismissed Monday after reporting that a woman dropped a bag of $120,000 in cash at her home and offered her more money if she would vote to acquit seven people charged with stealing more than $40 million from a program meant to feed children during the pandemic.

“This is completely beyond the pale,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson said in court on Monday. “This is outrageous behavior. This is stuff that happens in mob movies.”

These seven are the first of 70 defendants expected to go to trial in a conspiracy that cost taxpayers $250 million. Eighteen others have pleaded guilty, and authorities said they recovered about $50 million in one of the nation’s largest pandemic-related fraud cases. Prosecutors say just a fraction of the money went to feed low-income kids, while the rest was spent on luxury cars, jewelry, travel and property.

During the trial that began in April, defense attorneys questioned the quality of the FBI’s investigation and suggested that this might be more of a case of record-keeping problems than fraud as these defendants sought to keep up with rapidly changing rules for the food aid program.

These seven initial defendants were affiliated with a restaurant that participated in the food aid program. Those still awaiting trial include Feeding our Future’s founder Aimee Bock, who has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing.

The 23-year-old juror said she immediately turned over the bag of cash to police. She said a woman left it with her father-in-law Sunday with the message that she’d get another bag of cash if she voted to acquit, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Defense attorney Andrew Birrell told the judge that the bag of cash is “a troubling and upsetting accusation.”

Before allowing the trial to continue with more closing arguments on Monday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel questioned the remaining 17 jurors and alternates, and none reported any unauthorized contact. Brasel decided to sequester the jury for the rest of the proceeding as a precaution.

“I don’t do it lightly,” Brasel said. “But I want to ensure a fair trial.”

She didn’t decide immediately whether to detain the defendants, but she did order an FBI agent to confiscate the defendants’ phones.

The aid money came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was administered by the state Department of Education. Nonprofits and other partners under the program were supposed to serve meals to kids.

Two of the groups involved, Feeding Our Future and Partners in Nutrition, were small nonprofits before the pandemic, but in 2021 they disbursed around $200 million each. Prosecutors allege they produced invoices for meals that were never served, ran shell companies, laundered money, indulged in passport fraud and accepted kickbacks.

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