Wichita A Kansas grocery store owner and his wife were sentenced Wednesday to federal prison for a food stamp scam that profited by targeting people at homeless shelters who were willing to sell their government benefits for cash.
U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten sentenced Muhammad Qadeer Akram, 47, to 18 months in prison and gave his 38-year-old wife, Shama Qadeer, six months in prison plus six months of home confinement. The judge put the husband's sentence on hold until after his wife serves her time to allow one of the parents to be home with their young children.
The couple, who owned Alnoor Grocery and Biryani House in Wichita, pleaded guilty in September to one count each of conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud, food stamp fraud and wire fraud. Authorities say they typically gave recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, 50 to 60 cents on the dollar for the value of their food stamps.
"People here were actually trading for money what they were supposed to be using for food," Marten said.
The couple was accused along with the owners of another small Wichita grocery store of conspiring with Wally Mikhael Gaggo, the runner who scoured homeless shelters for people willing to sell their government benefits. The government charged 13 people in two federal indictments alleging schemes that defrauded the government out of more than $580,000.
"It is government money, taxpayer money and the court has pointed out the harm to others — including recipients," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson told the court.
He said the government had no objection to either the prison sentences or to staggering them for the couple.
The couple apologized in brief statements during separate hearings. "I promise it will not happen again," said Muhammad Akram, who was somber throughout the proceedings. His wife, meanwhile, wiped tears from her eyes as she apologized.
James McIntyre, Shama Qadeer's attorney, argued for a lower sentence for his client based on her cooperation with the government, her community standing and the needs of her family. He contended the crime was out of character and based "on a wrongheaded effort to save a family business."
Marten said he gave her a sentence shorter than her husband's because he believed she would be better suited to care for the couple's young children. "I don't believe your culpability is any less, and may be greater than your husband," Marten said.
Both sentences were far below the federal sentencing guidelines that called for 41 to 51 months in prison for each count, based on the findings that the fraud amounted to $450,000 and the couple had leadership roles in the conspiracy. The judge told them he was not giving them sentences that long because he wanted them to make restitution.
McIntyre had argued in his court filings that his client married Muhammad Akram, her first cousin, at age 15 in an arranged marriage and has limited education. She is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan and has four children who live at home.
Also Wednesday, Marten sentenced Tequita Higgins, a 28-year-old food stamp recipients who sold her government benefits, to two years of probation and ordered her to pay nearly $2,000 in restitution.
The owner of the Kansas Food Market, Ahmed Ajami Al-Maleki, is set for sentencing on Jan. 4. Gaggo's sentencing is set for Jan. 23.