The owner of the Ahram Halal Market in Portland and his brother were indicted Tuesday on charges that they conspired to defraud the federal government of tens of thousands of dollars intended to benefit low-income families, women and children.

Ali Ratib Daham, 40, and Abdulkareem Daham, 21, both of Westbrook, are named in the federal indictment issued in U.S. District Court in Portland. The charges against Ali Daham also include wire fraud, money laundering and theft of government funds.

The conspiracy took place from July 2011 through April 2016 at the market at 630 Forest Ave., court documents say. The indictment alleges that during that period, the Dahams transferred $3.5 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds into a checking account. The account included a mixture of legitimate SNAP transactions as well as “proceeds from fraudulent SNAP transactions,” court records say.

The indictment also says that about $683,986 in Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, funds were transferred into Ali Daham’s checking account and included a mixture of legitimate as well as fraudulent transactions.

SNAP, a federal program formerly known as food stamps, is designed to raise the level of nutrition among low-income households. WIC is a federal program that provides supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition for certain low-income women, and to infants and children as old as 5 who are determined to be nutritionally at risk.

“It was further part of the conspiracy that the defendants used some of the SNAP and WIC receipts from fraudulent transactions to purchase food inventory, to pay for the store’s operating expenses and for their personal use,” the indictment alleges.

A ‘VERY DETAILED’ INDICTMENT

Acting U.S. Attorney Richard W. Murphy said in a statement issued Tuesday that the Daham brothers each could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy charges.

In addition, Ali Daham faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of wire fraud and money laundering and up to 10 years on the theft charge. Ali Daham operated the market while his brother worked as a cashier.

A man who answered the phone at the market Tuesday night said Ali Daham no longer runs the store. When asked who owns the market, the man said he could not comment. He would not identify himself, but offered to take a message for Daham.

Walter McKee, an Augusta-based defense attorney who represents Ali Daham, said he told his client that he had been indicted. McKee said he has not had a chance to evaluate the 17-page indictment, which he described as “very detailed.”

“I anticipate he will enter a “not guilty” plea to all the charges,” McKee said Tuesday night.

McKee wouldn’t comment further and said he doesn’t know whether his client is still involved in operating the market.

McKee said Peter E. Rodway is the attorney representing Abdulkareem Daham. Rodway could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

According to the federal indictment, Ahram Halal Market opened for business in June 2011 with an inventory that consisted of breads, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products and canned goods. The market also sold a number of non-food items, including phone cards, over the counter medications, household items and hookah products.

Federal prosecutors identified Ali Daham as the manager and “sole owner of Ahram Halal Market” in court documents. He incorporated the business as Ahram Grocery LLC on April 4, 2012. Daham also co-owned Brother LLC, incorporated on Aug. 10, 2015, and served as president of AL Ahram LLC – both real estate companies.

SCHEME TO CONVERT BENEFIT DOLLARS

Murphy, the acting U.S. attorney, said the indictment alleges that over a nearly five-year period, the Westbrook men engaged in a SNAP and WIC trafficking conspiracy by allowing customers to exchange SNAP benefits and WIC checks for cash at a discounted rate. The scheme allowed SNAP benefits to be used to buy ineligible goods and services, and to illegally pay off credit accounts at the market.

The indictment alleges that Ali Daham allowed customers to redeem WIC coupons for cash, that he committed wire fraud by allowing a customer to use an EBT card containing SNAP benefits to obtain cash at a discounted rate, that he laundered proceeds of SNAP trafficking, and that he stole about $39,000 in SNAP and MaineCare benefits by failing to report or update changes to his income and assets with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal and state investigation into alleged illegal activities at the market was started last year by auditors for the Maine DHHS.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a written statement that she is “extremely grateful” to the department’s investigative team “for their incredible work on uncovering and prosecuting potential welfare fraud. I am committed to maintaining this focus to ensure our limited taxpayer dollars are going toward those who truly need them.”

SMALL STORE WITH HEAVY TRANSACTIONS

The Portland Press Herald reported in October that an affidavit filed in support of a search warrant by FBI Special Agent Richard Pires Jr. described a systematic scheme to convert benefit dollars meant to feed hungry Mainers into cash.

Investigators became interested after they discovered that Ahram Halal Market, which has one cash register, was processing nearly the same amount of SNAP transactions as the Hannaford supermarket on Forest Avenue.

In budget year 2015, the Hannaford store recorded $298,706 in SNAP transactions, while Ahram Halal Market recorded $268,047 in the same period.

The case was investigated by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Unit, and the Fraud Investigation and Recovery Unit of the Maine DHHS, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

A court date for the brothers has not been scheduled.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]