A key witness for federal prosecutors in the massive Feeding Our Future fraud scheme — who revealed a rampant system of kickbacks and bribes in a program meant to feed kids in need — hopes to avoid jail time by testifying against defendants, he said in federal court Thursday.

Attorneys for the seven defendants on trial repeatedly questioned Hadith Ahmed, who was the "right-hand man" to Feeding Our Future leader Aimee Bock, about how he lied to get rich in the scheme and how he now stands to benefit from cooperating with prosecutors, who could recommend a lower prison sentence.

"I was trying to avoid prison," Ahmed confirmed to defense attorneys on cross examination.

He testified Thursday that he's met with FBI agents and prosecutors more than a dozen times in the last three years to provide information in hopes of reducing his possible sentence of four or five years for stealing money from the federal program.

Ahmed, 36, who was among the first people to plead guilty in October 2022, testified that he received kickbacks from many food distribution sites, including some run by the defendants, in exchange for approving phony invoices and expediting federal reimbursements as part of a "booming" get-rich scheme.

"There was money everywhere," he said Wednesday. "Feeding Our Future was the place to go."

Ahmed is one of 18 people who have pleaded guilty out of 70 people charged or indicted since 2022.

Prosecutors said more than $250 million was stolen from U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that reimburse day-care centers, nonprofits and schools for feeding low-income kids after school and during the summer — one of the largest pandemic-related fraud schemes in the country.

The six men and one woman on trial have ties to Empire Cuisine & Market in Shakopee, which was "sponsored" by St. Anthony nonprofit Feeding Our Future and St. Paul nonprofit Partners in Nutrition, which administered paperwork for hundreds of meal distribution sites.

Said Shafii Farah, Abdiaziz Shafii Farah, Mohamed Jama Ismail, Abdimajid Mohamed Nur, Abdiwahab Maalim Aftin, Mukhtar Mohamed Shariff and Hayat Mohamed Nur were charged with wire fraud, money laundering and other crimes. They collectively received more than $40 million for submitting claims for more than 18 million meals.

Prosecutors have said the defendants exploited lax oversight and loosened rules during the pandemic and submitted fake invoices that grossly inflated the number of meals served, serving little to no food and using the money to buy luxury houses, cars and trips. Defense attorneys have countered that their clients navigated a complex program, served real food and earned a fair profit.

Over six hours of often tense cross-examination from defense attorneys, with Ahmed repeatedly telling them he couldn't recall details including from Wednesday's hearing, attorneys questioned Ahmed's credibility as a witness given his past lies in the fraud scheme. Defense attorney Edward Sapone questioned how Ahmed repeatedly submitted fake invoices and meal count forms, doing something dishonest for his own benefit.

Defense attorneys asked how Ahmed was only charged with one crime — conspiracy to commit wire fraud — despite evidence of money laundering and other crimes because he reached a plea agreement with the government. He confirmed that.

At Feeding Our Future, Ahmed oversaw employees who monitored food distribution sites to check if they were following the rules. He said he and other employees accepted kickbacks from food sites to look the other way, not reviewing invoices or going to food sites at all.

Steve Schleicher, who represents Said Farah, questioned how Ahmed could know there was no food served at food sites if he never visited them. He showed checks that Ahmed had said were kickbacks from Said Farah and his company. But, Schleicher asked, if Ahmed wasn't there when the check was written and he didn't get it directly from Farah, how could he know for certain it was from Farah? Ahmed agreed he couldn't know.

During the scheme, Ahmed and another employee also set up fake businesses that received millions of dollars for inflated amounts of meals they claimed to dole out, he testified. Ahmed said he was later fired by Bock after a Bloomington nonprofit complained he wasn't processing meal claims. Defense attorney Fred Goetz asked if he was fired for stealing from Feeding Our Future and making sexually inappropriate comments. Ahmed said no, calling those allegations false.

Schleicher questioned Ahmed, who grew up in Kenya, about whether he told FBI agents that many of the people charged in the scheme have ties to a Somali tribe that Ahmed called a "gangster tribe" that would do anything to make money. Ahmed said he didn't recall saying that, but he agreed with Schleicher that would be an unfair stereotype.

As part of Ahmed's plea deal, he agreed to forfeit more than half a million dollars and pay $1.3 million in restitution. Despite cooperating with authorities, he told Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Jacobs Thursday that he thinks he still will spend time in prison "because of what I did and all the fraud I committed."

The trial, which started April 22, continues Friday.