The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida has announced charges against three Tampa Bay-area men accused of conspiring to defraud the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and making false statements regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Ghasan Awad of Safety Harbor, Bassam Al Saleh of Tampa, and Ahmad Al Saleh of Tampa are charged with conspiracy to defraud USDA and making false statements to the USDA regarding SNAP. Awad also faces charges of wire fraud and obtaining SNAP benefits in violation of federal statutes. The Al Salehs each face three counts of making certain false statements to the USDA. It is unclear if any of the three has acquired legal representation.
According to the indictment, Awad was the owner of Express Meat Market, a grocery store in St. Petersburg, FL, that accepted SNAP benefits. For reasons that are unclear, Awad’s store was disqualified from receiving SNAP benefits by the USDA. Awad then allegedly conspired with Ahmad Al Saleh and Bassam Al Saleh to fraudulently transfer ownership of the business to Ahmad Al Saleh so that he could hide his active role in the business’ operations. The indictment accuses the trio of making multiple false and fraudulent statements to the USDA to initiate the transfer of the store’s ownership.
After transferring ownership of his business to Ahmad Al Saleh, Awad violated federal law and USDA regulations governing SNAP by giving the store’s customers cash in exchange for their SNAP benefits.
SNAP, which is formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is the federal government’s food-purchasing assistance program for low- and no-income people. Businesses that are authorized to accept SNAP benefits must comply with regulations set by the USDA. Business owners who violate the USDA’s rules may be disqualified from the program and face fines and other penalties.
If convicted, Awad and the Al Salehs face up to five years in prison for the conspiracy charges. Awad also faces up to five years imprisonment for each SNAP benefits violation, and up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud. The Al Salehs also face a maximum of five years in prison for each false statement count.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office noted that an indictment is merely a formal charge that someone has committed violations of federal criminal law. However, the accused is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law.
SNAP fraud is a big problem in Florida, where more than three million people are on the program. According to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Jimmy Patronis, SNAP fraud cost Florida taxpayers more than $12 million in 2018 alone. Patronis’ office estimates that 10 percent of all stores authorized to accept SNAP benefits are engaged in fraud. Overall, the USDA estimates that SNAP fraud costs taxpayers around $330 million each year.
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