Portland market owner in food stamp probe denies fraud allegation

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PORTLAND — The owner of a Forest Avenue market targeted in an FBI welfare fraud investigation is eager to share is his side of the story, his attorney said Tuesday.

“We have been aware of this investigation,” attorney Walt McKee said about government claims his client, Ali Dahman, paid cash to federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients and siphoned SNAP funds as commissions.

“Ali has been adamant that he has done nothing wrong,” McKee said Tuesday. “He looks forward to a full airing of what did – and most importantly did not – happen. Until then he is going have the benefit of the time-honored American tradition of the presumption of innocence.”

Dahman, owner of the Ahram Halal Grocery store at 630 Forest Ave., near Woodfords Corner, has not been charged with any wrongdoing as a result of an undercover investigation that began in August 2015 and extended through this summer.

In a 52-page affidavit seeking a search warrant filed April 26 at U.S. District Court in Portland, FBI Special Agent Richard Pires Jr. alleged Dahman also fraudulently accepted SNAP and other federal benefits, Pires said.

The affidavit estimates as much as $2 million could be seized from Dahman.

Pires also alleges a business associate of Dahman’s, Ashraf Eldeknawey, filed fraudulent tax returns and accepted illegally obtained SNAP funds as fees. Eldeknawey utilized available Earned Income Tax Credits to get fraudulent refunds while working in an office inside the market, according to the affidavit.

SNAP is commonly called the “food stamp” program, and is intended to supply food and personal care items to low-income recipients, using electronic benefit cards for transactions. Cash exchanges are prohibited, but the FBI was called in to investigate after Maine Department of Health and Human Services officials noticed abnormally high SNAP receipts at the store, according to the affidavit.

Working with IRS Special Agent Rodney Giguere and U.S. Department of Agriculture Special Agent Christopher Robinson, Pires said the investigation also uncovered instances of tax fraud and fraudulent acceptance of federal Woman and Infant Children’s benefits.

Pires said an undercover informant began visiting the store in September 2015, and was able to repeatedly get cash after Dahman allegedly inflated sales. According to the affidavit, the informant first received $200 cash from Ali after a $13 purchase was submitted as a $233 transaction. Dahman allegedly kept $20.

The informant received cash for inflated SNAP transactions at least three times, Pires said, as well as advice from Eldeknawey on how to file false tax documents. Eventually, the informant allegedly received a $2,000 tax refund, for which he paid Eldeknawey $300.

Beyond evidence based on the undercover operations, Pires detailed SNAP receipts that exceeded estimates and normal expectations for a store the size of Ahram Halal.

SNAP sales data from January 2012 through December 2015 shows the store had average SNAP sales of $83, with 78 percent of sales exceeding $100. Pires said any sale exceeding $100 could be considered suspicious. By comparison, SNAP sales at the Hannaford Bros. store at 295 Forest Ave. averaged $35, with 30 percent exceeding $100.

By 2015, Pires said the Ahram Halal Grocery was redeeming $269,000 in SNAP sales, while the Hannaford Bros. store redeemed $299,000.

Both the store and Dahman’s Westbrook home at 74 Bridgton Road were searched April 28. Computers and the store EBT transaction terminal were seized.

While no charges have been filed or indictments handed up, Gov. Paul LePage on Monday said the investigation shows welfare fraud is a large problem that has been ignored by the press and Obama Administration officials for political reasons.

“I hope the Obama Administration is not turning a blind eye to such brazen tax and welfare fraud simply to protect their politically correct, open-borders agenda,” he said. “On behalf of Maine taxpayers who work hard to provide these benefits to truly needy people, I will continue to support our state’s efforts to end abuse of our welfare system.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.