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Two Swansea men plead guilty to $1.6m SNAP fraud

From Illinois Business Journal news services

EAST ST. LOUIS – Stephen R. Wigginton, United States attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, announced today that Qais Hussein, 44, and Majdi Odeh, 45, both of Swansea, pleaded guilty to a four-count indictment charging that they along with others engaged in a conspiracy from January 2010 through July of 2012, to unlawfully acquiring Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly known as food stamp benefits), aiding and assisting in the preparation and presentation of false tax returns, and trafficking in counterfeit goods.

For the SNAP benefit conspiracy charge, both Hussein and Odeh face up to five years in federal prison, up to a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release. For the tax fraud counts Hussein and Odeh face up to three years in federal prison, up to a $100,000, and one year of supervised release as to each of the two counts. For the trafficking in counterfeit goods charge, Hussein and Odeh face up to 10 years in federal prison, up to a $2 million fine, and three years of supervised release. Both men must also pay a $400 special assessment.

Sentencing will be in United States District Court on Sept. 3 in East St. Louis.

During their plea hearing, Hussein and Odeh, brothers, who operated businesses in East St. Louis, Illinois, known as Garden Grill Market, Inc. and Garden Grill Market II, Inc., admitted to conspiring together and with others to fraudulently traffic in and acquire over $1 million dollars in federal SNAP benefits.

The prosecution advised the court that the actual loss to the program was approximately $1.6 million and that full restitution would be sought.

SNAP benefits are similar to United States currency in that SNAP recipients can purchase food from grocery retailers at the face value of their SNAP benefits. In most states, SNAP benefits are provided to recipients on an Electronic Benefits Transfer card that is used like a bank automated teller machine card. The SNAP recipients in Illinois receive an EBT card known as an “Illinois Link” card. Illinois SNAP recipients can use their Illinois Link card at an authorized retailer in any state.

Hussein and Odeh admitted that as part of the conspiracy, they would use Garden Grill Market Inc. and Garden Grill Market II, Inc., to unlawfully acquire SNAP benefits from customers by offering and unlawfully giving cash payments to those customers in the amount of 50 to 60 percent of the value of the Government SNAP benefits, with Hussein and Odeh keeping the difference.

In addition, Hussein and Odeh fraudulently accepted SNAP benefits for ineligible items such as tobacco, cellular phones, and purses/handbags. Hussein and Odeh also admitted to buying Women, Infants and Children (WIC) vouchers by giving cash amounts less than the face value of the voucher.

As to the tax charges, Hussein and Odeh admitted that they had assisted in the preparation of two false 2010 tax returns by underreporting income generated by Garden Grill Market, Inc. and Garden Grill Market II, Inc.
As to the Trafficking in Counterfeit Goods, Hussein and Odeh admitted that from January of 2010, through July 2012 they trafficked in counterfeit goods, including watches, hats, DVDs and other items.

In addition to Hussein and Odeh, the owners of the Garden Grill stores, five employees
have also been charged. Elsayed Hassan and Hossam Ahmed were charged along with Hussein and Odeh in the indictment with Conspiracy to Unlawfully Acquire Food Stamps. Albraa K. Sabrah, Alaa K.A. Jaber and Rami M. Abou Amra were all indicted separately and charged with Unauthorized Acquisition of SNAP Benefits. All five employees have also pled guilty.

United States Attorney Stephen R. Wigginton stated, “This successful investigation and prosecution is yet another step in the combined efforts of federal law enforcement and prosecutors to unmask those who enrich themselves while others in our community who are in desperate need of assistance suffer from reduced benefits because of the fraud that is literally pillaging assistance programs. As I have said before, and it bears repeating, my office, the attorneys who prosecute these cases, and the agents who work tirelessly to investigate them simply will not stop. If you defraud the United States, we will find you, and you will be prosecuted!” The exclamation was included in his statement.

The case was investigated by agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Office of Inspector General, the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – Homeland Security Investigations. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Ranley R. Killian and William E. Coonan.

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