Passaic County, New Jersey, Couple Admit Roles In Illegal Food Stamps Scheme
TRENTON, N.J. – A Passaic County, New Jersey, couple admitted today that they took part in a food stamps fraud scheme, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced.
Ibrahim Zughbi, 65, and his wife, Miriam Zughbi, 61, of Wayne, New Jersey, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Peter G. Sheridan in Trenton federal court. Ibrahim Zughbi pleaded guilty to an information charging him with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly known as the Food Stamp Program – benefit fraud and money laundering. Miriam Zughbi pleaded guilty to an information charging her with conspiracy to defraud the United States through SNAP benefit fraud.
According to documents filed in these cases and statements made in court:
From January 2014 to January 2018, the defendants owned and worked at Jamaica Meat Market, a medium-size grocery store in Paterson, New Jersey. Ibrahim Zughbi had been previously barred from participating in the SNAP program for allowing benefits to be exchanged for cash in a prior store that he owned. Ibrahim Zughbi listed a nominee as the store’s owner in order for Jamaica Meat Market to participate in the program.
Jamaica Meat Market was authorized to accept benefits provided by SNAP, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retail food stores approved for participation in SNAP may sell food in exchange for SNAP benefits. They may not exchange SNAP benefits for cash. The Zughbis exchanged more than $4.5 million in SNAP benefits for cash between 2014 and 2018.
Every SNAP recipient receives an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, similar to a debit card, with which to make purchases. Every retailer authorized to accept SNAP benefits has an EBT terminal. Food purchases are made by swiping the card at the terminal. After the customer enters a Personal Identification Number (PIN), the EBT terminal verifies the PIN, determines whether the customer’s account balance is sufficient to cover the proposed transaction and informs the retailer whether the transaction should be authorized or denied. The amount of the purchase is deducted electronically from the SNAP benefits reserved for the customer and the amount is credited to the retailer’s designated bank account.
To conceal the proceeds of the SNAP benefit fraud, Ibrahim Zughbi wrote inflated checks from the Jamaica Meat Market account containing the SNAP fraud proceeds to a supplier, and then received funds back in cash from the supplier. Zughbi also issued checks to family members with no apparent connection to Jamaica Meat Market.
Law enforcement agents verified the fraudulent exchange of SNAP benefits for cash through the use of a confidential source who, at the direction of law enforcement, engaged in 16 “purchases” at Jamaica Meat Market where one or both defendants exchanged money for SNAP benefits.
The SNAP fraud and money laundering charges each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or twice the gross gain or loss from the offense. Sentencing is scheduled for July 17, 2019.
U.S. Attorney Carpenito credited special agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture –Office of Inspector General, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Brian Michael, with the investigation leading to today’s guilty pleas. He also thanked the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office, the Wayne Township Police Department and the Paterson Police Department for their roles in the investigation.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean M. Sherman of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Public Protection Unit in Newark.
Ibrahim Zughbi: Alan Zegas Esq., Summit, New Jersey
Miriam Zughbi: Sean McGovern Esq., Newark