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Feds seek woman who left bag of $120,000 as bribe at home of juror

MINNEAPOLIS — Federal 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 juror, who promptly reported the attempted bribe to police, was dismissed and replaced with an alternate. The incident had further ripple effects before deliberations resumed Tuesday — when another juror was replaced after a family member asked about the attempted bribe.

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 late Sunday, the night before the case went to the jury. The juror wasn’t home, but a relative answered the door. The woman handed the relative a gift bag with a curly ribbon and images of flowers and butterflies and 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 of cash. It held $100, $50 and $20 bills totaling around $120,000. The FBI took the bag from Spring Lake Park police on Monday morning and interviewed the juror.

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 who had access to it included prosecutors and defense lawyers — and the seven defendants themselves.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel and attorneys for both sides learned about the attempted bribe Monday morning. The judge ordered all seven defendants to surrender their cellphones at the request of the government so that investigators could look for evidence. She also ordered all seven taken into custody.

“It is highly likely that someone with access to the juror’s personal information was conspiring with, at a minimum, the woman who delivered the $120,000 bribe,” the FBI agent wrote, noting that the alleged fraud conspiracy at the heart of the trial involved electronic communications, including text messages and emails.

Before the case went to the jury late Monday afternoon, Brasel ordered them sequestered for deliberations. When one of them called home to say she’d been sequestered, according to KARE-TV and KSTP-TV, a family member asked, “Is it because of the bribe?” The judge replaced that juror with an alternate, too.

Anyone involved in the attempted bribe could face federal charges of bribery of a juror and influencing a juror, with a maximum potential penalty of 15 years in prison.

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

According to the Star Tribune, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thompson told the court Monday: “This is completely beyond the pale. This is outrageous behavior. This is stuff that happens in mob movies.” Defense attorney Andrew Birrell called it “a troubling and upsetting accusation,” according to the newspaper.

The seven were the first of 70 defendants to go on trial in what federal prosecutors have called one of the largest COVID-19-related fraud cases in the country. They’ve described it as a massive scheme to exploit lax rules during the pandemic and steal from a program that was meant to provide meals to children in Minnesota.

Prosecutors have said the seven collectively stole over $40 million in a conspiracy that cost taxpayers $250 million. At the center of the alleged plot was a group called Feeding Our Future. Prosecutors say just a fraction of the money went to feed low-income kids, and that the rest was spent on luxury cars, jewelry, travel and property. Federal authorities say they have recovered about $50 million.

Eighteen other defendants have already pleaded guilty, while the rest are awaiting trial. Among them is Aimee Bock, the founder of Feeding our Future. She has maintained her innocence, saying she never stole and saw no evidence of fraud among her subcontractors.

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