From Illinois Business Journal news services
EAST ST. LOUIS — Two brothers from Swansea and five of their business employees have been sentenced for their roles in illicit deals involving more than a million dollars of public food benefits.
Stephen R. Wigginton, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, announced today that Qais Hussein, 43, and Majdi Odeh, 45, both of Swansea, were sentenced on related charges in the U.S. District Court in East St. Louis.
Hussein and Odeh were indicted by a federal grand jury on Oct. 22, 2014. Odeh and Hussein were owners of the two Garden Grill stores in East St. Louis.
Two of their former employees, Elsayed Hassan and Hossam Ahmed, were charged with Hussein and Odeh in the original indictment with conspiracy to unlawfully acquire SNAP stamps.
Albraa K. Sabrah, Alaa K.A. Jaber and Rami M. Abou Amra were all indicted separately on Oct. 23, 2013, and charged with unauthorized acquisition of SNAP benefits.
After a two-day hearing, on Oct. 20, 2015, the district court sentenced Hussein and Odeh each to 85 months in federal prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. The court also ordered both Hussein and Odeh to each pay $12,500 in fines, $1,682,604.38 in restitution for the loss to the SNAP program, and $400 in special assessments.
Hussein and Odeh pleaded guilty on May 11, 2015, to a four-count indictment charging that they along with others engaged in a conspiracy from January 2010 through July 2012, to unlawfully acquire Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamp benefits), aiding and assisting in the preparation and presentation of false tax returns, and trafficking in counterfeit goods.
During their plea hearing, Hussein and Odeh, brothers who operated businesses in East Saint Louis 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 in federal SNAP benefits (the exact amount, which was ultimately determined by the district court, was found to be $1,682,604.38).
The five employees of the business, who also pleaded guilty, were sentenced as follows:
— Hossam Ahmed, 25, of St. Louis pled guilty on April 28, 2015, to the charge that he along with others engaged in a conspiracy from January 2010 through July of 2012, to unlawfully acquire SNAP benefits. The district court sentenced Ahmed to three years of probation with the first 30 days being in home confinement. The court also ordered Ahmed to pay $250.81 in restitution for the loss to the SNAP program and a $100 special assessment.
— Alaa Jaber, 29, of Jersey City, New Jersey, pleaded guilty on April 28, 2015, to five counts of stealing SNAP benefits. The district court sentenced Jaber to 30 days in jail, to be followed by three years of supervised release. The court also ordered Jaber to pay $2,500 in fines, $1,422.36 in restitution for the loss to the SNAP program, and $500 in special assessments.
— Elsayed Hassan, 25, of East Saint Louis, pleaded guilty on May 7, 2015, to one count of the indictment for conspiracy to unlawfully acquire SNAP benefits. Hassan was sentenced to time served, three years supervised release, $675.13 in restitution, and a $100 special assessment.
— Rami Abou Amra, 37, of Troy, pleaded guilty on Jan. 9, 2015, to three counts of the indictment for unauthorized acquisition of SNAP benefits. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, $328.40 in restitution, a $100 fine and a $300 special assessment.
— Albraa Sabrah, 27, of Hazelwood, Mo., pleaded guilty on March 20, 2015, to three counts of unauthorized acquisition of SNAP benefits. Sabrah was sentenced to three years’ probation, $798.48 restitution, a $200 fine, and a $300 special assessment.
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 ATM card. The food stamp 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.
The defendants admitted that as part of the conspiracy, they would use the two Garden Grill locations to unlawfully acquire benefits from customers by offering and unlawfully giving cash payments to those customers in return for the electronic transfer of SNAP benefits for well in excess of the cash amount given, normally giving the recipients cash in the amount of 50 percent to 60 percent of the value received by the store.
In addition, the defendants fraudulently accepted SNAP benefits for ineligible items such as tobacco, cellular phones, and purses/handbags. The defendants also admitted to buying Woman, Infant and Children vouchers by giving cash amounts less than the face value of the voucher.
As to the tax charges, the defendants 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, the defendants admitted that from January of 2010 through July 2012 they trafficked in counterfeit goods, including watches, hats, DVDs and other items.
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.
U.S. Attorney Wigginton praised the efforts of the investigators.
“This successful investigation and prosecution is yet another step in the combined efforts of state and federal law enforcement 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,” he said in a statement. “As I have said before, 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 government, we are looking, we will find you, and you will be prosecuted, and you will wind up in a federal jail far from your home.”