2015 file photo of Ahram Halal Market on Forest Avenue in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | File

The former owner of a Portland halal market who, with his brother, traded $1.4 million in federal food benefits for cash was sentenced Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court to three years in prison.

The federal prosecutor called the case “one of the largest, if not the largest, fraud cases involving [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits in [Maine].”

Ali Ratib Daham, 41, of Westbrook, who originally owned Ahram Halal Market, 630 Forest Ave., pleaded guilty in November to one count each of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, money laundering and theft of government funds.

A halal market under different ownership still operates at that address.

Daham remains free on bail until July 18, when he must report to a prison assigned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

His brother, Abdulkareem Daham, 23, was sentenced Monday morning to two years in prison. He was convicted after a three-day jury trial in January of conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to court documents.

The older brother was ordered to pay $1.4 million in restitution, while the younger was ordered to pay up to $955,000, according to their attorneys. The restitution order states that the men are equally responsible for payments but the younger brother’s payments are capped.

Ali Daham already has paid $80,000 toward restitution, according to court documents.

In addition to prison time, both men were sentenced to three years of supervised release.

In sentencing the older brother, U.S. District Court D. Brock Hornby, who himself is a naturalized citizen, said there were “no winners in a case like this.”

“By sentencing two brothers, I realize I’m creating great pain for this family,” he said. “I’m also creating great pain for the immigrant community, as many members have told me he was a great helper to them. Sadly, he was a helper to them by defrauding the government.”

Augusta attorney Walter McKee recommended the former store owner be sentenced to six months in prison in his sentencing memorandum. He said that 72 letters in support of his client had been submitted to the court.

Nearly 60 friends, family and supporters filled the Portland courtroom, several of whom told Hornby that Daham is a kind family man who deserves lenience.

The Dahams are natives of Iraq. The family fled the country in the mid-2000s. They arrived in Portland in 2009 and opened the business two years later.

The elder brother said that he broke the law in an effort to help Portland’s immigrant community.

“I came from a country experiencing different wars,” Ali Daham said through a translator when it was his turn to address the court. “The human condition was different. People had to help each other. … What I did [here] was in the spirit of providing help for people in the community.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney James Chapman argued that by running the welfare-for-cash fraud, Daham harmed those immigrants in need by fueling prejudice against his community and “providing ammunition to those who would seek to restrict welfare benefits.”

The evidence presented at the younger Daham’s trial showed that between June 2011 through April 2016, the brothers gave cash to customers at the market in exchange for benefits from the SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children plus a fee.

During that period, the market received more than $4 million in SNAP and WIC receipts, at least $1.4 million of which were obtained illegally, according to court documents.

In his sentencing memorandum, the younger man’s attorney, Peter Rodway of Portland, argued that Abdulkareem Daham began working at the store in 2011 when he was a 16-year-old high school student. In spite of his conviction, he worked stocking shelves and did not begin working as a cashier until July 2015, Rodway said.

The attorney also maintained that his client was only responsible for $226,000 in losses since he only worked as a cashier for 18 months. It was at the cash register where the actual exchange of benefits for money took place, according to court documents.

Rodway recommended his client be sentenced to five months or time served. Abdulkareem Daham’s bail was revoked about two weeks before his trial for smoking marijuana. He is expected to be deported since unlike his brother, who in 2013 became naturalized American citizen.

The maximum sentence for their crimes is five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.

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Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.