The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently filed criminal charges against three Cleveland men accused of committing hundreds of thousands of dollars of food-stamp fraud, after years of investigation and a series of undercover sting operations by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agents.
On August 14, Cleveland residents Mohammad D. Mohammad, Ahmad J. Damra, and Mahmoud Jamil Damrah were indicted in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, each charged with multiple counts of fraud committed between 2002 and 2011.
The federal government alleges the defendants acted to “defraud the Food Stamp and WIC [Women, Infants and Children] Programs” and “convert illegally obtained Food Stamp benefits and WIC coupons into money.”
According to the indictment, Mohammad defrauded the WIC and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) programs through his business, the E. 143rd Food Market.
In 2005, after being convicted for food stamp trafficking and aggravated arson, Mohammad obtained a new food stamp license by applying under a different business name with his mother listed as president.
Mohammad’s store also accepted food stamps and WIC benefits without a state license for nearly 5 out of 14 years the store had been open.
In addition to illegally trafficking in food stamps for years, Mohammad’s store operated illegally after the secretary of state canceled its business license in 2009 because of Mohammad’s failure to pay the business’s taxes.
Store manager Ahmad Damra and clerk Mahmoud Jamil Damrah allegedly helped Mohammad defraud the SNAP and WIC programs for a total of approximately $780,710.
Court records allege that the store traded customers’ WIC checks for a cash, allowing customers circumvent program restrictions on using taxpayer funding to purchase products such as beer and cigarettes.
In four separate undercover operations conducted by USDA agents in 2011, Damra and Damrah accepted food stamps in return for ineligible items.
A recently released USDA study found that the payoff for food-stamp traffickers has increased by over 256 percent since 2002. The nation’s food stamp rolls have increased dramatically in the past several years.
According to the study, the absolute dollar value of food-stamp fraud has increased, but government researchers found that more businesses were participating in such fraud — especially grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods, such as the Mount Pleasant neighborhood where Mohammad and Damra ran his scam for nearly a decade.
In an interview with Media Trackers, Heritage Foundation senior research fellow and domestic-policy expert Robert Rector indicated the Mohammad case was likely “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“This type of fraud is very prevalent, and very little activity is undertaken by USDA — or anyone else — to stop it,” Rector said. “Moreover, the larger type of fraud is simply someone who sells the card itself, or someone who is employed and doesn’t report that to the food-stamp office.”
“My estimate would be that 20-25 percent of food-stamp recipients probably have a ‘hidden job.’ There’s no effort to stop that type of fraud at all,” Rector added.
Of the USDA’s efforts to crack down on fraud, Rector said, “what they don’t know about is the person who sold the card right outside the door of the store.”
At publication, no hearings for the case have been scheduled. The judge assigned to hear the case, Judge Donald C. Nugent, was appointed by President Clinton in 1995.