(STL.News) – United States Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez announces the unsealing of an indictment charging Ghasan Awad (58, Safety Harbor); Ahmad Al Saleh (56, Tampa); and Bassam Al Saleh (63, Tampa) with conspiracy to defraud the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) and making false statements to the USDA regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”). The indictment also charges Awad alone with three counts of wire fraud and three counts of obtaining SNAP benefits in violation of federal law and USDA regulations, and Ahmad Al Saleh and Bassam Al Saleh each with three counts of making certain false statements to the USDA. If convicted, each individual faces up to 5 years in federal prison for the conspiracy offenses. Awad also faces up to 5 years in prison for each of the charged SNAP benefits violations, and up to 20 years’ imprisonment on each wire fraud count, and Ahmad Al Saleh and Bassam Al Saleh each face a maximum of 5 years in prison for each false statement count. The indictment notifies the defendants that the United States is seeking a money judgment as to the proceeds of the charged criminal conduct.
According to the indictment, Awad was the former owner of Express Meat Market, a grocery store in St. Petersburg, Florida that accepted SNAP benefits. After his disqualification from SNAP, Awad conspired with the other defendants to fraudulently transfer ownership of the store to Ahmad Al Saleh, so that Awad could conceal his ongoing, active role in the store’s operations. The indictment further alleges that, after the fraudulent transfer, Awad unlawfully violated SNAP by paying cash to store customers in exchange for their SNAP benefits, in violation of federal statutes and the USDA regulations governing SNAP. The indictment also includes allegations that the conspirators made a number of false and fraudulent statements to the USDA to effect the fraudulent transfer of the store’s ownership.
An indictment is merely a formal charge that a defendant has committed one or more violations of federal criminal law, and every defendant is presumed innocent unless, and until, proven guilty.
This case was investigated by the USDA-Office of Inspector General and the Department of Homeland Security, with assistance from the St. Petersburg Police Department. It will be prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Jay L. Hoffer.