Minimart owner gave $100 cash for every $200 of food stamps, is headed to prison

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A Southeast Portland convenience store owner who paid customers 50 cents for every dollar that they had coming to them in welfare benefits has been sentenced to nearly two years in prison.
Investigators said Nasr Iskander operated his minimart at a Shell gas station on Southeast Powell Boulevard like an ATM by allowing card-carrying recipients in the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to receive cash instead of food.
Iskander might charge $200 worth of phantom food to a recipient’s benefits card, then hand that person back $100 in cash, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Iskander, in turn, would pocket $100 for himself.
Over 3 ½ years, Iskander swindled the state out of $189,000 meant to buy food for low-income Oregonians. But his customers also were willing participants in Iskander’s scheme.
Prosecutors believe the customers learned of Iskander’s set-up through word of mouth, and they showed up in droves around the first days of the month, right after the state would recharge their SNAP cards.
Investigators with the Oregon Department of Human Services, which administers the benefits program, built their case against Iskander by watching as recipients entered Iskander’s store at 16331 S.E. Powell Blvd., were rung up for large dollar amounts of food, then left carrying no groceries.
Investigators also found data showing that he was selling unusually high dollar amounts of food to welfare recipients. A convenience store across the street from Iskander’s charged an average of $6.50 per transaction to welfare recipients’ accounts, while Iskander charged an average of $29 per transaction.
When Iskander, 39, was arrested, he claimed the sales were legitimate. He explained that the high dollar amounts were due to a large amount of Egyptian cheese and pita bread that customers were buying, according to a probable cause affidavit.
The Oregonian/OregonLive this week asked the Department of Human Services for statistics on food stamp fraud by store owners. A spokeswoman for the department said analysts would need more time to gather such data.
Prosecutions in the metro area are relatively rare.
Robert Crow, Iskander’s defense attorney, said he’s worked on a few cases, but they have involved representing the customers who used their benefits cards to get cash instead of food.
Crow said SNAP card holders often use the cash to buy what the food stamps program won’t allow: drugs or alcohol.
Crow said although his client must pay back the state $189,000, he might have pocketed only half of that because the other half walked out the door with the card holders.
While declining to specifically talk about Iskander’s case, Crow said the crime of a store owner cashing out SNAP cards is often a crime of desperation.
“I think a lot of the time, the store merchant is in dire straits: ‘I’ve got bills to pay, my store is failing. I’ve got to do something,’” Crow said. “No one is getting rich off of this type of crime.”
Iskander pleaded guilty to first-degree aggravated theft, unlawfully obtaining public assistance and unlawfully using a food stamp benefit. He was sentenced in Multnomah County Circuit Court to 22 months last Friday.
As part of his plea agreement, Iskander made his first big payment back to the state: $50,000.
A relative -- Karima Meshreki Hanna, 53 -- is jointly responsible for paying back the money because she worked at the store and took part in the scheme.
Last year, she pleaded guilty to aggravated first-degree theft and first-degree theft. As part of an agreement that included her cooperation in testifying against Iskander, she was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years of probation.
Prosecutor Ryan Lufkin said she played a much smaller role in the theft than Iskander.

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