In the Market
On any given weekday, students from East High School can be found passing their free hours with Mohamad Aboub at the Clara Market, a small convenience store just a couple of blocks from campus. Although the nineteen-year-old is an Iraqi immigrant who hasn't yet finished high school, several of his young customers come to him for help with their homework.
But Aboub may not be behind the counter for long, because he and his father are facing criminal charges for allegedly trafficking in food stamps. As a result, they will most likely close the shop this month.
Aboub's father brought his Sunni family here after they were forced to flee Baghdad nearly a decade ago; Aboub says he was too young to understand why the family had to leave. They first went to Jordan, where they got U.S. visas, then randomly ended up in Denver. Almost five years ago, Aboub's father, Moayad Mohmoud, purchased the Clara Market, at 2907 East Colfax Avenue.
The family also owns a shop/hookah bar at Monaco Parkway and East Evans Avenue, but Aboub spends most of his time at Clara, where he sells typical convenience-store fare such as chips and soda, candy bars and cigarettes. But Clara also carries glass pipes and bongs, charcoal, incense, hookahs, Tupac T-shirts and doo-rags, knives, swords, handcuffs and plastic toy guns that look very real. There are soccer balls and sandals, electric razors, boxing gloves, purses and framed pictures of Bob Marley and Scarface alongside miniature flags of the United States and Mexico.
Clara Market also offers onions, bread, frozen dinners and enough other food items to meet the federal government's requirements for accepting food stamps. By law, food is the only thing the owners can sell to people using food-stamp credits, which are stored on an electronic card that works like a debit card. While the program's $25 billion in federal monies gets distributed through local counties, it's the feds who license and regulate which retailers can participate in the program.
Sometimes, Aboub admits, he'll sell a non-food item like soap to someone on food stamps who looks like he really needs it.
"We don't do it all the time -- hardly ever," Aboub says. "This is really bad. We're a good family. In five years, we built all this success, very successful. We put a lot of time and a lot of money in here."
But when the United States Department of Agriculture was tipped off that Clara Market was allegedly buying people's food-stamp cards for cash, the ensuing investigation revealed a lot more than soap.
When Mark Hopko, a special agent from the USDA's Office of the Inspector General, reviewed the food-stamp records for Clara Market, he found that Clara's redemptions were higher than those of other stores of similar size in the area, according to the arrest warrant issued for Aboub and his father.
Hopko, who refused to be interviewed for this report, began surveillance of Clara Market on January 11 and noticed that people often went in and then came out a short time later empty-handed. His warrant states that the behavior is consistent with food-stamp trafficking because people are going in to sell their credits for currency. In such a transaction, the store owner might buy a card with $300 on it for $150. That gives the food-stamp recipient quick cash to use however he pleases (unfortunately, converted food-stamp money is often used for drug purchases), while the shop owner redeems the card from the government for the full face value, thus making a profit of $150.
As Hopko's investigation went forward, he was informed that an investigator from the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the food-stamp program, was already four months deep into an investigation of Clara Market. The agent, Robert Bell, first bought several authorized food items and one non-food item on August 21 from Aboub's younger brother, Ali, who also works at the shop. He returned a couple of weeks later and again bought a mix of grocery items and unauthorized items. Again Ali sold to him.
About three weeks later, Bell returned to Clara and bought more prohibited goods, this time from the boys' father. Bell returned twice in October, purchasing more items, including a $28 designer knife, from Ali.
By January, Bell was a regular customer, so he decided to raise the stakes, asking Aboub if he could obtain cash for his food-stamp card. Aboub asked Bell how much he wanted, and Bell told him he'd take whatever he could get. According to the arrest warrant, Aboub then told Bell that if someone were to get $20 cash for their food stamps, the store would ring $40 on the food stamp card.
Bell agreed to the terms of the deal, and Aboub rang in the items being purchased. When the receipt was printed out, it stated that there was $650.37 remaining on the card. Bell offered to sell the rest of it, and Aboub offered to pay Bell $300 for the card -- $100 now, and the rest in a few days.
When Bell returned to the shop on January 18 to collect the rest of the money, he brought along Denver Police undercover detective Shawn Saunders. When they walked in, Aboub greeted Bell and immediately asked him who his friend was.
Saunders, who was wearing a wire, told Aboub that he worked at Wal-Mart and could steal anything Aboub wanted off the delivery trucks. Saunders later wrote in the arrest warrant that Aboub seemed very excited and asked Saunders to first get him five cases of Marlboros. Aboub told Saunders not to tell anyone what they were up to and agreed to pay $12 per carton. Aboub then allegedly said he'd like a very large plasma TV in the future.
As the two undercovers were heading out, Bell asked Aboub about the other food-stamp money still owed him, and Aboub's father pulled a large wad of cash out of his pocket and gave Bell $200. Bell asked if he could come back with his new food-stamp card around the first of the month; Aboub agreed.
Saunders returned to the shop January 29 with twenty cartons of Marlboro and Marlboro Light cigarettes, worth about $670 and marked with a liquid solution detectable by black lights. Saunders was expecting $240 for the smokes, but Aboub and his father gave him an extra $10 after opening up three of the cartons and seeing that the tax stamp was on the packs.
About a week later, Saunders arrested Mohmoud and Aboub, charging them with trafficking in food stamps and theft by receiving, Class 4 felonies punishable by up to six years in prison, plus a possible three years in prison for a third felony charge of unauthorized use of a financial-transaction device. If convicted, Aboub and Mohmoud, both of whom have green cards, could also be deported, though the United States isn't currently returning people to Baghdad.
"I don't really worry about it, but I do worry about it," Aboub says. "They tracked us for five months, and there are a lot of other people who do worse than that. We just help people out.
"We're going to fix this; it's just a little mistake," he adds. "Sometimes you try to help people and it gets you messed up."
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