Feds are seeking the person who left $120,000 in cash for a juror to get her to vote to acquit

Authorities in Minnesota have confiscated cellphones and taken all seven defendants into custody as investigators try to determine who attempted to bribe a juror with a bag of cash containing $120,000 to get her to acquit them on charges of stealing more than $40 million from a program meant to feed children during the pandemic.

The case went to the jury late Monday afternoon, after the 23-year-old juror, who promptly reported the attempted bribe to police, was dismissed and replaced with an alternate. She told court officials that a woman had dropped the bag at her home and offered her more money if she would vote to acquit. She said a woman left it with her father-in-law Sunday with the message that she would get another bag of cash if she voted to acquit, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

A second juror was dismissed Tuesday morning, KSTP-TV and KARE-TV reported. According to U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel, the juror called her family Monday night to let them know the jury was being sequestered and the family member responded, “Is it because of the bribe?” The juror then reported that conversation to the court, which told her to not talk to any other jurors about what she had heard. She was also replaced with an alternate.

“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.”

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

Minneapolis FBI spokesperson Diana Freedman said Tuesday that she could not provide information about the ongoing investigation.

The seven defendants are the first of 70 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 children, while the rest was spent on luxury cars, jewelry, travel and property.

During the trial, which 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.

Before allowing the trial to continue with final closing arguments on Monday, Brasel questioned the remaining 17 jurors and alternates, and none reported any unauthorized contact at that point. 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.”

Brasel also ordered all seven defendants detained and ordered 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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