OGDEN — A pair of federal indictments unsealed Tuesday allege a dozen people linked to two Ogden convenience stores participated in an elaborate food stamp scam that netted about $8.6 million in USDA benefits.
The stores named in the indictment handed down by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City are Westside Valley Market, 873 W. 24th St., and 9th Street Corner Market, 1390 9th St.
Individuals arrested in connection with Westside Valley Market include:
• Zia Atta, 38, of Ogden.
• Aweas Akbar Al-Quadri, 21, of Ogden.
• Naseer Hamad Durani, 39, of Rocklin, Calif.
• Farad Said Farani, 36, of Ogden.
• Mariana Navarro Farani, 29, of Ogden.
• Seraj Ghasem Pour Babakandi, 23, of West Haven.
• Shershah Lodin, 39, of Pittsburg, Calif.
Those arrested in connection with 9th Street Corner Market include Atta and:
• Masood Aziz, 36, of Elk Grove, Calif.
• Diana Funez, 19, of Ogden.
• Fidel Funez-Limon, 18, of Ogden.
• Sharara Haidari, 30, of Elk Grove, Calif.
• Siavosh Sabri, 41, of Salt Lake City.
The stores are also named as defendants in the indictment.
The defendants face multiple counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud; wire fraud; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits Program fraud; access device fraud; conspiracy to commit money laundering; and money laundering.
Several of the individuals were being held Tuesday night in Weber County Jail, said Weber County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Klint Anderson.
Search warrants were executed by authorities Tuesday morning at Westside Valley Market and 9th Street Corner Market. The stores were closed late Tuesday afternoon, leaving numerous puzzled customers outside.
The defendants from Utah will make their first appearance in federal court today. If convicted, they face prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years on most of the charges and fines of $250,000.
Federal prosecutors are seeking the seizure of homes in Elk Grove, Thornton and Marysville, Calif.; a home and commercial property in Ogden; several bank accounts; and judgments totaling $7.7 million.
The two indictments allege on multiple occasions between April 2010 and October 2012, the markets allowed customers to make one or more transactions with a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, electronic benefits card to buy a nominal amount of food or nonfood items, such as cigarettes, and an additional amount up to the card’s limit.
A portion of the transaction over the value of the merchandise purchase would be refunded to the customer in cash and the full value of the transaction would be deposited by electronic funds transfer into the market’s bank account, the indictment alleges.
Stores are prohibited from accepting SNAP benefits in exchange for items like alcoholic beverages, tobacco, prepared hot foods, pet food, cellphone minutes or household goods, said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In addition, benefits cannot be redeemed for cash, she said.
In February 2008, Westside Valley Market estimated food sale items eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits at $124,000, according to the indictment. That amount was revised a few months later to $34,500.
In January 2011, Westside Valley Market estimated eligible annual food sales at $613,000. The market redeemed about $2.6 million in SNAP benefits from January 2010 and October 2012, according to the indictment.
Another indictment indicates that 9th Street Corner Market was authorized to accept SNAP benefits in April 2009 with estimated annual food sales of $12,750. According to an updated application submitted by the market in 2010, annual food sales were estimated at $420,000. The 9th Street Corner Market redeemed about $6 million in SNAP benefits between April 2010 and October 2012, the indictment states.
Both markets sell food, cigarettes and snack products, such as soft drinks, candy, prepared sandwiches and burritos. The USDA’s Office of Inspector General tracks food sales from stores eligible for SNAP benefits, Rydalch said.
The investigation involving the stores is being handled by the USDA, the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security and the Ogden Police Department.