OGDEN Utah (ABC 4 News) - Federal agents served three search warrants that may be related to food stamp fraud.
Agents with the U.S. Department of Agriculture raided two convenience stores and a home during an early morning bust Tuesday.
At the Westside Valley Market undercover agents and Ogden police arrested three men. The market is located at 873 West and 24st.
A second location was neary Harrison Boulevard and 9th street at the Corner Market. Police did not disclose the location of the home.
Federal agents at the scene referred all inquiries to the U.S. Attorney's office.
"The case is under seal so I can't comment," says Melody Rydalch, spokesperson for the U.S. attorney.
And while federal authorities wouldn't comment, some customers knew the store had a reputation.
"I've heard a little bit that they might dabble in stuff like that," says Doug Young who was turned away from the store by police.
Young who lives in the neighborhood says he knows of friends who do sell their food stamps at the Westside Valley Market.
"They bring in their food stamps and get so much cash of it off their stamps," says Young."I don't think it's well known but I know of a couple of people (that sold their food stamps here.)."
At the second location neighbors knew something bad was going to happen.
"I'm not surprised by all this," says the neighbor who did not want to be identified.
"Before the store opens you find all sorts of people hanging out here. Who does that at that time of the day."
Those under arrest had no comment as their were lead in handcuffs to the police car.
Late Tuesday afternoon, a press release from the U.S. Attorney's office confirmed what ABC 4 News learned. The release is as follows:
Two indictments (attached) were unsealed late this afternoon charging two Ogden markets and several individuals with violations of federal law in connection with alleged schemes to defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, the FBI, ICE Homeland Security Investigations, and the Ogden Police Department. Several other law enforcement agencies helped with the execution of warrants today.
The SNAP program provides assistance to low income individuals and families to purchase food. States are given authority to determine eligibility and to certify recipients who qualify for the program. In Utah, SNAP benefits are administered by the Utah State Department of Workforce Services. Approved applicants are given a benefits transactions card, similar to a bank debit card, linked to a SNAP account. Benefits for recipients are electronically encoded to the account on a monthly basis to allow beneficiaries to purchase eligible food items. SNAP card benefits can only be exchanged for eligible food items and can only be used at authorized stores. The cost of the purchased groceries is automatically deducted from the beneficiary’s SNAP account at the time of sale. Generally, only non-prepared food items for human consumption may be purchased using SNAP cards. Stores are prohibited from accepting SNAP benefits in exchange for things like alcoholic beverages, tobacco, prepared hot foods, pet food, cell phone minutes/ring tones or house hold goods. Benefits cannot be redeemed for cash.
The indictment alleges that on multiple occasions between April 2010 and October 2012, a SNAP benefit card would be presented to an employee of the Corner Market, along with a request to redeem the value on the card for cash. The employees would require the customer to purchase a nominal amount of food or non-food items, such as cigarettes, and in one or more card transactions would process the purchase and an additional amount up to the SNAP benefit limit on the card. A portion of the value of the transaction over the value of the merchandise purchased would be refunded to the customer in cash, the indictment alleges. The full value of the transaction would subsequently be deposited by electronic funds transfer into the bank account of the market, the indictment alleges.
U.S. v Zia Atta, et al alleges conduct in connection with the Westside Valley Market, Inc., located at 873 West 24th Street in Ogden. Seven individuals and the market are named in this indictment. Charges include in the 28-count indictment include conspiracy to commit wire fraud; wire fraud; supplemental nutrition assistance benefits program fraud; access device fraud; conspiracy to commit money laundering; and money laundering. Charged in the indictment are Zia Atta, age 38, of Ogden; Aweas Akbar Al-Quadri, age 21, of Ogden; Naseer Hamad Durani, age 39, of Rocklin, California; Farad Said Farani, age 36, of Ogden; Mariana Navarro Farani, age 29, of Ogden; Seraj Ghasem Pour Babakandi, age 23, of West Haven; Shershah Lodin, age 39, of Pittsburg, California; and the Westside Valley Market, located at 873 West 24th Street, in Ogden.
The indictment alleges that on the application to participate as a SNAP retailer accepted in February 2008, Lodin reported estimated food sales of those items that are eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits of $124,000. The amount was revised a few months later to $34,500 and the application was updated to add Naseer Durani as the owner. In January 2011, Westside Market was reauthorized as a SNAP retailer, with Mariana Navarro Farani as the new owner. Farani reported estimated annual food sales of $613,000. The indictment alleges Westside Market redeemed approximately $2,632,133.47 in SNAP benefits during the period January 2010 through October 2012. The merchandise available for purchase at the market is that of a small market or convenience store, including small food and convenience items such as cigarettes, soft drinks, chips, candy, cookies, canned soups and pastas, prepared sandwiches and other snack items.
Indictment No. 2
US v Aziz, et al charges six individuals in a 38-count indictment in relation to similar alleged conduct at the 9th Street Corner Market located at 1390 9th Street in Ogden. Charged in the complaint are Atta (see above), Masood Aziz, age 36, of Elk Grove, California; Diana Funez, age 19, of Ogden; Fidel Funez-Lion, age 18, of Ogden; Sharara Haidari, age 30, of Elk Grove, California; Siavosh Sabri, age 41, of Salt Lake City; and the 9th Street Corner Market. The market was authorized to accept SNAP benefits on April 2, 2009, with an estimated annual food sales of $12,750. On Sept. 3, 2009, an updated application was filed adding Zia Atta as owner and revising the reported annual figures to $12,000, according to the indictment. On March 2, 2010, another updated application was submitted, this time by Sharara Haidari showing her as co-owner with Atta and revising the reported annual sales figure to $420,000. The Corner Market redeemed approximately $6,025,444 in USDA SNAP benefits during the period April 2010 through October 2012.
Potential penalties Conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud: Up to 20 years; $250,000 fineSupplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits Program Fraud: up to 5 years; $250,000 fine
Access device fraud: Up to 15 years; $250,000 fine Money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering: Up to 10 years
Arrests: Aziz, Atta, Farad Said Farani, Mariana Farani, Seraj Ghasem Pour Babakandi, and Diana Funez were arrested today in Ogden.Siavosh Sabri was arrested today in Salt Lake City. Fidel Funez-Limon was already in custody on separate unrelated state chargesSharara Haidari and Aweas Akbar Al-Quadri were arrested today in California.Local defendants will appear at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Furse. Indictments are not findings of guilt. Individuals charged in these indictments are presumed innocent unless or until proven guilty in court.