Mohamad Alnamour says the food-stamp authorities got the wrong Mohamad. Since 1994, Alnamour has sold fruits and vegetables to thousands of customers from Stand 42 inside the D.C. Farmer’s Market at 5th and Neal Streets NE. Two of those transactions, according to investigators with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were illegal: On May 23, 1996, they say, a male clerk named Mohamad accepted $45 in food stamps in exchange for $23 in cash, and less than a month later, he accepted $100 in food stamps for $50 in cash.
“They said there was someone named Mohamad,” says Alnamour, who emigrated from the Middle East in 1993. “I said there were too many people named Mohamad.”
Alnamour’s mistaken-identity defense didn’t sway the Ag Department: In mid-October, Alnamour was permanently disqualified from the food-stamp programa blow he says will wipe out his produce-selling enterprise. Nearly all his customers, he says, pay for their produce with food stamps. A crude white Styrofoam sign”No food stamps”now advises them to take their business elsewhere.
Alnamour says they have it all wrong, but he and several competitors at the market are discovering that the feds don’t mess around when it comes to food-stamp fraud. The process goes something like this: They accuse you of violations. They disqualify you from the food-stamp program. You lose your low-income customers. You may appeal, but only after you’ve been disqualified. In certain cases, you can stay in the program if you pay fines$20,000 per offense, in Alnamour’s caseand show documentation of your business’s anti-fraud policies.
Farmer’s Market merchants say the heavy-handed adjudication mechanism has denied them due process and made the market a much less appealing stop for low-income shoppers.
It’s hard to just stumble across the D.C. Farmer’s Market, which is hidden in a hive of wholesalers just off Florida Avenue NE. The market specializes in, well, everything. Cowboy hats, fresh sirloin, red pepper flakesit’s all there, provided you’re willing to visit five or six of the market’s 40-plus stands. And the market is to the city’s poor as Fresh Fields is to its rich. Two boxes of brand-name cereal can be had for $5, a fresh chicken breast for just over $1, and an industrial-size bottle of Texas Pete Hot Sauce for a mere $1.99. Most stand owners estimate food-stamp recipients at anywhere between 85 and “99.9” percent of their customers. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas and hip bargain hunters make up the remainder.
Where food-stamp transactions cluster, so do food-stamp frauds. On Aug. 20, a group of FBI and Ag Department agents descended on three market stands armed with search warrants and a backlog of damning evidence against the operators. They confiscated evidence against the three stands for criminal charges that are now pending in federal court.
In one of the cases, a federal agent, over several months, allegedly exchanged a total of $8,242.90 in food-stamp benefits for $4,675 in cash from Stand 29, a variety store operated by Yehia Elhak. Such exchanges are the most common form of food-stamp fraud: The merchant clears an immediate windfall when he cashes the food stamps at the bank, and the customer gets cash to procure all the commoditiescigarettes and booze, for startersfor which food stamps are invalid. “They set us up,” says a contrite Elhak, who admits he gave an agent $800 in cash for $1,500 in food stamps in the August raid. “I made a mistake.”
That’s a rare admission for a Farmer’s Market merchant. Alnamour, for one, denies ever having trafficked in food stamps and does everything possible to distance himself from the three merchants involved in the August busts. “If they come and catch me right at the time and say, ‘Hey, you are trafficking in food stamps,’ then that is fine,” says Alnamour, whose alleged violations have not resulted in criminal proceedings.
The feds, instead, opted for a less confrontational approach with Alnamourinforming him of his violations about 26 months after they allegedly occurred. “Because the charges are about alleged violations that are over two years old, I realize that it is nearly impossible for me to prove my innocence,” wrote Alnamour in response to a charging letter from the Ag Department.
Alnamour nearly foams at the mouth when asked about the feds’ investigative practices. “How [do] they know my name?” he asks. “If I am really trafficking in food stamps, do you think I would tell them, ‘I’m Mohamad’?” And the stand operator argues that profit margins for cabbage are simply too fat for him to consider illegal means of remuneration. “Look here,” demands Alnamour, pointing to a receipt for five cases of cabbage at wholesale prices. “One dollar for $5,” he says, explaining the 400 percent markup on cabbage. “I don’t need to do this.”
“It don’t make no sense,” says Alnamour. He’s not alone in suggesting that an overreaching Uncle Sam is getting in the way of good old-fashioned Yankee commerce:
•Abed Almaala, another of the market’s produce vendors, received word over the summer of a fraud allegation dating to July 1996. The alleged violation, says Almaala, occurred on a day when his stand was closed. “They are just lying,” he argues.
•Ormrode Williams, who runs a grocery stand, says he’s under review for a violation that he says occurred before he even owned the business.
•Harvey Chidel, owner of Harvey’s Market, retained counsel in September to fight two fraud charges dating back to mid-1996. The department, he says, accused a clerk named Jackie of giving out cash for $90 in food stamps in two exchanges at the meat stand. “They think every businessman is a thief,” says Chidel, who denies the alleged violations. “They’re either out to kill us or they don’t give a damn.”
•Jonathan Amanor thought he had taken care of a 1996 Ag Department allegation by writing a letter in defense of his vegetable and fruit operation. Two years later, the department informed him of his disqualification.
Alnamour, Almaala, Williams, Chidel, and Amanor are among 13 Farmer’s Market merchants stuck in some sort of adjudication with the food-stamp fuzz, according to Joseph Devereaux, an officer with the department’s Food and Nutrition Service. Although Devereaux declines to comment on individual cases, he suggests that the merchants’ impassioned defenses are so much spoiled meatand in any case, the protests won’t change the outcome. “I’m guessing, but I’d say one in 1,000 or one in 10,000 cases” is overturned, says Devereaux.
Devereaux is no less dismissive of the merchants’ gripes about due process in food-stamp enforcement. “They signed an application, like a contract, and they must accept full responsibility for anything that goes on in their store,” he says. If there’s solid evidence of infractions, he says, “we will then remove them.” Few merchants, he continues, avail themselves of appeals channels because “they don’t think they would win, and we [generally] have the goods on them.”
Alnamour, though, insists that lawyers feesand not incriminating evidenceare the real barrier to justice. “Take Harvey,” says Alnamour, referring to Chidel. “He has a Cadillac ’99. He is a millionaire. He can afford a lawyer.”
Whatever the adjudication hurdles, the extensive delays between the alleged infractions and the stunning consequences are wreaking havoc among stand operators, according to market manager Phillip Choi. “The enemy comes, and two years later we fight,” says Choi, noting that the troubles have scared off customers. Choi wants the public to know that most stands in the market still accept food stamps.
Those that don’t may have no choice but to fold. Alnamour says he’ll be out of business by year’s end, barring a change of heart at the Ag Department. “I come to a place where there are no dictators, where I can be a free man,” says Alnamour. “And then they come to take our lives away.” CP