Owner of St. Paul market indicted on food stamp fraud

A federal grand jury has indicted Khaffak Sahib Ansari with trafficking approximately $3 million in food stamps. Ansari was charged with three counts of food stamp fraud in connection with the crime.

Ansari is the former owner of a small store in St. Paul, called Stryker Avenue Market. The indictment alleges that between January of 2006 and October of 2010, he exchanged food stamp benefits for cash and ineligible merchandise.

His attorney, Daniel Schermer, says Ansari will plead not guilty.

"Obviously the government hasn't shown us what the evidence is, so it's very hard to speculate on where they're coming from and either the strength of it or the weakness of it," Schermer said. "At this point all I have to go on is that he says he's not guilty."

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Benefits for the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, are issued on an EBT card, which resembles a debit card. Stores are reimbursed by the federal government through an electronic transfer. Food stamp benefits can't be redeemed for cash.

According to the indictment, when food stamp recipients gave Ansari their benefits card, he would swipe it, then give them a portion of the value in cash. He was then reimbursed by the federal government for the whole amount.

For example, the indictment alleges he once swiped a person's EBT card for $401 and provided that person with $200 in cash.

The indictment also says Ansari allowed people to buy cell phone minutes, cigarettes, and other items that aren't part of the food stamp program.

Ansari's attorney questions the $3 million figure. "Basically, as I understand it, they arrived at these numbers for the amount of the fraud by taking (Ansari's) invoices for food sales and multiplying by an arbitrary 35% markup," he said. "It's simply a projection, based on assumptions."

Schermer also pointed out that EBT cards carry more than just food stamp benefits. He said the customers may have been using their welfare benefits, not food stamps.

If he's convicted, Ansari faces a potential maximum penalty of 5 years in prison. He's scheduled to appear in court Tuesday, May 24.

According to the state's Department of Human Services, fraud accounts for a very small portion of total expenditures in the food stamp program, which is called Food Support in Minnesota. However, department officials say any amount of fraud is unacceptable. They did not comment specifically on the Ansari case.