USA v. Noha Fofana
OPINION filed : AFFIRMED, decision not for publication. Eugene E. Siler , Jr. (AUTHORING), R. Guy Cole , Jr. and Deborah L. Cook, Circuit Judges.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR PUBLICATION
File Name: 13a0994n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
NOHA T. FOFANA,
Nov 21, 2013
DEBORAH S. HUNT, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED
STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR
THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF
Before: SILER, COLE, and COOK, Circuit Judges.
SILER, Circuit Judge. A jury convicted Defendant Noha Fofana of a single count of
conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 371 and 2024. The district
court sentenced him to 51 months of imprisonment plus three years of supervised release and
restitution. Fofana timely appealed his conviction, alleging the district court erred by limiting the
purpose for which the jury could consider a defense witness’s testimony about an alleged bribe offer.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) authorized Mandingo African
Market (“Mandingo”) – a convenience store in Flint, Michigan – to participate in its Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) (formerly called Food Stamps). Fofana, the owner of
Mandingo, had agreed as part of his participation in the program not to accept food stamps for cash
USA v. Noha Fofana
or other ineligible items. Current SNAP recipients utilize an electronic benefits transfer (“EBT”)
card that functions in the same manner as a debit card.
Fofana and several of his employees, including store manager Akhir McFarland, Sr.
(“McFarland, Sr.”), purchased EBT cards from SNAP customers – typically at a rate of 50 cents per
dollar of benefits. At trial, the defense attempted to shift all culpability to McFarland, Sr. by arguing
Fofana was an unwitting store owner with no knowledge of the fraud.
One of the clerks participating in the scheme was McFarland, Sr.’s son, Akhir McFarland,
Jr. (“McFarland, Jr.”). Along with other witnesses, McFarland, Jr. testified at length about the
SNAP fraud at Mandingo, including details about Fofana’s involvement. Defense counsel crossexamined McFarland, Jr. about a phone call he made to his cousin, Eric Yuell. Specifically,
McFarland, Jr. was asked if he said during the call that his father had agreed to give him $10,000
if he supported his father’s version of events while testifying. In response, McFarland, Jr. denied
being offered anything by his father for his testimony.
As part of the defense case, Fofana called Devaroe Davis to testify about the alleged call
between McFarland, Jr. and Yuell. Davis testified that he was present when Yuell answered a call
from McFarland, Jr. and that because the phone was on speaker, he was able to hear the
conversation. At that point, the government objected to the testimony Davis was about to give,
arguing it was hearsay and should not be admitted into evidence. Fofana argued that the overheard
statement should be admitted for two purposes: (1) to impeach McFarland, Jr.’s direct examination
testimony, and (2) to demonstrate that McFarland, Jr. had been offered a bribe and thus had a corrupt
motive for testifying. The district court found the testimony admissible, but only for the purpose
USA v. Noha Fofana
of attacking McFarland, Jr.’s truthfulness. It instructed the jury that Davis’s testimony could not
be used to establish that McFarland, Jr. had been offered a bribe. Fofana contends that the trial
court’s limitation on the purpose of Davis’s testimony was an error that merits reversal of his
We review evidentiary rulings by the district court, including those involving hearsay, for
an abuse of discretion. United States v. Wright, 343 F.3d 849, 865 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Trepel v.
Roadway Express, Inc., 194 F.3d 708, 716 (6th Cir. 1999)).
To analyze whether the court below properly characterized Davis’s testimony about the
alleged bribe offer as hearsay, a review of the transcript is appropriate. Davis testified in pertinent
part as follows:
Q. (Defense Counsel, continuing): And who called who as between
Eric Yuell and Akhir McFarland Junior?
A. Akhir Junior called him on his cell phone.
Q. Him being Eric?
Q. And if it’s on a cell phone, how were you able to hear it?
A. ‘Cause it was on speaker phone ‘cause his phone isn’t like his ear
part broke so he got to answer his phone on speaker phone.
Q. And were you able to hear that conversation?
USA v. Noha Fofana
Q. And what did Akhir McFarland Junior say, if anything, during
A. Well, only thing he said was my daddy gone give me 10,000 if I
do whatever he tell me to do and testify on Fofano [sic].
Q. Is there any question but what you were able to hear that
A. No, that was all that was said and then Eric told him he would
call him back. He said you hot, I’m gone call you back and hung up
In this exchange, the relevant statement by the declarant, McFarland, Jr., is the assertion that
McFarland, Sr. would give him $10,000 if he testified against Fofana. Fofana correctly points out
that words used to offer a bribe amount to “verbal acts” with their own legal significance and do not
qualify as hearsay. See Preferred Properties, Inc. v. Indian River Estates, Inc., 276 F.3d 790, 798
n.5 (6th Cir. 2002); Fed. R. Evid. 801(c) advisory committee’s note. In this instance, however,
Davis did not hear McFarland, Sr. offer anyone a bribe. He heard McFarland, Jr.’s assertion that
McFarland, Sr. had offered him a bribe. By arguing that the jury should have been allowed to
consider McFarland, Jr.’s statement for the purpose of determining whether a bribe was actually
offered, Fofana is seeking to use an out-of-court statement to prove the truth of the matter it asserts.
See United States v. Montana, 199 F.3d 947, 950 (7th Cir. 1999) (explaining the difference between
performative and illocutionary utterances when analyzing hearsay in the context of a bribe). Since
Fofana does not cite a valid hearsay exemption supporting his position, the district court did not
USA v. Noha Fofana
abuse its discretion by limiting the use of Davis’s testimony about the alleged bribe offer to the
impeachment of McFarland, Jr.
Harmless Error Analysis
Even if the district court erred by limiting the purpose for which the jury could use Davis’s
testimony, Fofana’s conviction would nevertheless be affirmed because the error was harmless. An
“[e]rror is harmless if [a court is] satisfied that the outcome of a trial was not affected by evidentiary
error.” United States v. Vasilakos, 508 F.3d 401, 406 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks
Besides the McFarlands, two other eyewitnesses observed Fofana conducting illegal SNAP
transactions, including the exchange of cash for SNAP benefits and allowing customers to use EBT
cards to purchase ineligible items. Additionally, one of those witnesses observed Fofana manually
entering EBT numbers into the point-of-sale machine when no customers were present in the store
while the other saw Fofana meet McFarland, Sr. on multiple occasions carrying a bag containing
cash, EBT cards and receipts. At those meetings, Fofana and McFarland, Sr. were observed dividing
cash between themselves.
Along with the eyewitness testimony, the government produced significant circumstantial
evidence of Fofana’s guilt. An agent from the USDA testified that over 92% of the EBT
transactions at Mandingo were manually typed in and that SNAP redemptions at the store were more
than five times the average amount redeemed at similar convenience stores in the area. An FBI
agent testified that more than $270,000 in cash was withdrawn during a six month period from the
credit union account that Fofana controlled in which the Mandingo SNAP funds were deposited.
USA v. Noha Fofana
Additionally, a handwritten note in Fofana’s wallet reading “June: 45,295.69 Mandingo” was found
during a search of his residence. That figure nearly approximated the SNAP transaction total at
Mandingo for the month of June 2011. Finally, a text message from July 2011 was recovered on
Fofana’s phone that was sent by a person offering to trade food stamps for cash.
Fofana conversely argues that his trial “was essentially a credibility contest between
government witness McFarland, Jr. and defense witness Davis” and that if the jury had been
permitted to substantively consider the bribe offer allegedly made by McFarland, Sr. the outcome
would have been different. This argument fails for several reasons. First, since Davis’s account of
the bribe offer was actually admitted into evidence, the jury had that information – along with
McFarland, Jr.’s denial – when it considered how much weight to give to the latter’s testimony.
Second, Davis’s credibility itself was severely undercut during cross-examination. He admitted to
having memory problems associated with a mental condition that required hospitalization in June
and July 2011 and he failed to mention Fofana’s lack of involvement in the SNAP fraud when first
interviewed by federal agents.
The district court properly recognized the distinction between a witness who hears a bribe
offer directly and testifies about that “verbal act” and a witness who hears another person recount
a bribe offer and seeks to testify about what that person said. The latter is hearsay and cannot be
admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted – in this case – that a bribe offer actually occurred.
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