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$1 Million in Food-Stamp Charges Raises Red Flag

Miami convenience-store owner faces federal prison for fraudulent charges

MIAMI -- A Miami convenience-store owner could face federal prison after admitting to fraudulent food-stamp charges at his store from October 2012 to March 2016, the Sun Sentinel reports.

In that time, the store owned by Zulfiqar Mithavayani of Miramar, Fla., redeemed $1 million more worth of food-stamp purchases than the average Florida c-store, which redeemed about $100,000, federal prosecutors said. About $700,000 worth of transactions were flagged as potentially fraudulent.

The store, the ABC Food Market at 163 NW 14th St., also did at least four times more food-stamp business than the other convenience stores located within a half-mile of his business, according to court records.

Mithavayani was charged in May as part of what investigators called Operation Stampede. They said it was the largest food-stamp-fraud takedown in the United States and involved the arrests of at least 15 people, most of who were linked to a flea market in Miami-Dade County.

The investigation at the ABC Food Market began in March 2013 when an undercover officer used a food-stamps debit card to buy food, then stayed in the store and asked customers for cash, authorities said.

Mithavayani later said in court that he called the undercover officer over and asked if he wanted $5. The two haggled, and Mithavayani fraudulently charged $38.50 worth of “food” to the card and gave the officer $20 in cash, the Sun Sentinel reports.

The undercover officer completed a total of 15 fraudulent cash transactions at the store in the next 2½ years, according to court records. Some of those involved Mithavayani but most were approved by one of his employees, investigators said.

The former employee, Jamal Al-Hawa of Davie, Fla., was also indicted earlier this year but is listed as a fugitive.

Mithavayani pleaded guilty to eight counts of wire fraud and one count of wire fraud conspiracy in July. The maximum possible punishment is 20 years in federal prison per charge. U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga will issue Mithavayani’s sentence Oct. 27.

Prosecutors have not indicated what sentence they will recommend but wrote in court records that Mithavayani owes more than $694,500 in restitution.

The defense is contesting that estimate and recommending a punishment of house arrest or a maximum of 10 to 16 months in federal prison, partly because Mithavayani has no prior criminal history. Mithavayani’s lawyer wrote in court records that a defense expert calculated the total loss at less than $50,000.

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