A federal judge on Tuesday accepted guilty pleas from a former halal market owner in Portland who used his store to traffick public assistance benefits, including food stamps.

U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby said he was satisfied that the government could have demonstrated, had the case gone to trial, that Ali Ratib Daham, 40, of Westbrook conspired to defraud the government of about $1.4 million between 2011 and 2016.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Chapman said the case against Daham was one of the largest welfare fraud cases he’s ever prosecuted. He called the plea agreement an acceptable resolution for all parties.

Walt McKee, Daham’s attorney, declined to comment until after sentencing, which will be scheduled in the spring of 2018.

Chapman said he has not started working on his sentencing recommendation but Daham could face a maximum of 20 years in prison, plus restitution of the amount taken.

The Iraqi immigrant and naturalized citizen was indicted in April on 25 counts following an investigation into transactions at his business, the Ahram Halal Market on Forest Avenue, near Woodfords Corner, which he operated with his 21-year-old brother, Abdulkareem Daham. The market’s inventory included breads, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products and canned goods. It also sold phone cards, over-the-counter medications, household items and hookah products, and was popular with immigrants.

Investigators with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services became suspicious when they noticed Daham’s business was processing an unusually high volume of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps.

Chapman said the average food stamp transaction at Daham’s market was $85, much higher than the Hannaford supermarket on Forest Avenue, a much bigger store that averaged only $33 per transaction during the period in question.

A joint investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Unit, and the Recovery Unit of Maine DHHS revealed that Daham and his brother regularly allowed customers to exchange their public assistance for cash. This included both food stamps and benefits under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants or Children, known as WIC.

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 states.

Peter Rodway, the attorney for Abdulkareem Daham, said in an email Monday that his client’s case is on the trial list for Jan. 8. Rodway said that his client “is charged only with a single count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government.”

Under their business arrangement, Ali Daham ran the market, while his brother worked as a cashier.

As part of his agreement, Daham pleaded guilty Tuesday to three counts and the other 22 were dropped. He also agreed to forfeit approximately $80,000 in cash that was seized last year and to pay the full amount of restitution, $1.4 million.

Daham is no longer involved with the market, which has reopened under new management.

The investigation was first publicized last fall on Lifezette.com, a news site founded by Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk radio host and a longtime Fox News contributor. Soon after that, Portland police said someone used a baseball bat to smash six storefront windows at the market on Christmas Eve.

Following the vandalism, a national advocacy group called on police to investigate whether anti-Muslim bias motivated the destruction.

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