Crime & Courts

13 people indicted in food stamp fraud case

Last November, an undercover police officer paid $303.60 for a pack of gum and some cookies at the Alnoor Grocery store.

Store owner Shama Qadeer pulled cash out of her blouse and handed $180 to the customer, according to a federal indictment filed Tuesday in Wichita.

That was one of about 2,600 transactions at two Wichita grocery stores designed to steal federal food stamp benefits, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said Tuesday. More than $580,000 in benefits was stolen, he said.

Qadeer, 37, and her husband, Muhammad Qadeer Akram, 46, now face charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, food stamp fraud and wire fraud.

Ahmed Ajami Al-Maleki, 40, owner of the Kansas Food Market, faces similar charges in a separate indictment.

Prosecutor Brent Anderson is also seeking charges against 10 others engaged in buying and selling their federal food assistance for cash.

Wally Mikhael Gaggo, 48, is charged in both indictments, as what Grissom called "a runner" who would find people willing to sell their Vision Cards and personal identification numbers (PINs) for cash.

Vision Cards work like debit cards and have replaced the old food stamp system.

Often, the cards came from homeless and unemployed people at the Drop-in Center at 353 N. Market or in a parking lot near Third and Broadway.

"The great irony is that... right across from the federal courthouse is where a lot of these folks, who were homeless, were approached," Grissom said.

Selling Vision Cards for cash is illegal.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, recipients charged in the Alnoor Grocery indictment are: Sobhi O. Dana, 56; Laura S. Kemble, 33; Angela N. Norwood, 37; Tequita L. Higgins, 27, and Misty R. Rivera, 28. All are from Wichita.

Charged in connection with the Kansas Food Market are: Joseph H. Morgan, 49; Hezekiah H. McGhee, 48; Mpeka F. Magari, 30, and Jason D. Kemp, 35, all of Wichita.

In Kansas, the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services administers SNAP for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An SRS computer tracking system caught irregularities at the stores, Grissom said.

First, there were numerous purchases in whole dollar amounts.

"I would challenge anybody in this room to buy groceries, and I'm confident it will not be an even $100, or an even $200, or an even $50," Grissom said.

In February 2010, Grissom said, the Alnoor Grocery and Biryani House, 5220 E. 21st, near Edgemoor, claimed $4,313 in monthly SNAP purchases.

By January, the store was collecting more than $90,000 a month in Vision sales.

At the Kansas Food Market, 2600 N. Arkansas, federal benefit purchases jumped from $682 a month to $26,000 a month from February 2010 to September 2010.

Federal agents and Wichita police kept surveillance on the stores, documenting people swiping their Vision cards and leaving with no groceries. The indictment also said undercover officers traded cash for Vision benefits.

Jim Mendenhall, special agent for the U.S. Office of the Inspector General, said the government switched from food stamps to the electronic cards to try to curb abuse.

"It did for a little while but the bad guys found a way to defraud the card system," Mendenhall said.

During the past year, Mendenhall said prosecutors nationwide secured more than 200 convictions for fraud in the SNAP program and recovered $36.8 million.

Grissom said agents had seized $200,000 in cash and other real estate in this case. If convicted, the owners face forfeiture of those assets to pay back the taxpayers.

The charges also could bring maximum sentences of five to 20 years in federal prison.

"Unfortunately in these economic times, it's something people need," Grissom said of the Vision card, "which is why it's important to find the people who are abusing the system because they don't need it."