FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, Ill. — Two Illinois men pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to charges of conspiring to illegally acquire food stamp benefits, file false tax returns and traffic in counterfeit goods.
These guilty pleas were announced by U.S. Attorney Stephen R. Wigginton, Southern District of Illinois. The guilty pleas resulted from an investigation conducted by the following agencies: U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Qais Hussein, 44, and Majdi Odeh, 45, both of Swansea, Illinois, pleaded guilty May 11 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 (SNAP) Benefits (formerly known as food stamps), aiding and assisting in the preparation and presentation of false tax returns, and trafficking in counterfeit goods.
Hussein and Odeh are brothers who owned and operated the Garden Grill Market Inc. and Garden Grill Market II Inc. in East St. Louis, Illinois. They admitted to conspiring together and with others to fraudulently traffic in and acquire more than $1 million in federal SNAP benefits. The prosecution advised the court that the actual loss to the program was about $1.6 million and that full restitution would be sought.
SNAP benefits are similar to U.S. currency in that 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 (EBT) card that is used like a bank Automated Teller Machine (ATM) card. 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 used 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, cell phones and purses. 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.
Regarding the tax charges, Hussein and Odeh admitted that they had assisted in preparing two false 2010 tax returns by underreporting income generated by Garden Grill Market Inc. and Garden Grill Market II Inc.
Regarding the trafficking in counterfeit goods charges, Hussein and Odeh admitted that from January 2010 through July 2012 they trafficked counterfeit goods, including watches, hats, DVDs and other items.
In addition to Hussein and Odeh, five employees have also been charged. Elsayed Hassan and Hossam Ahmed were charged in the indictment, along with Hussein and Odeh, for conspiring 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 pleaded guilty.
“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,” said Wigginton. “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!”
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. On 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 for 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 $2,000,000 fine, and three years of supervised release. Both men must also pay a $400 special assessment. Sentencing will be in U.S. District Court Sept. 3 in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ranley R. Killian and William E. Coonan, Southern District of Illinois, are prosecuting this case.