CHICAGO — Federal prosecutors announced on Friday that the owners of four Chicago area convenience stores — one of whom is a Chicago police officer — have been charged with scheming to defraud a food program that helps low-income mothers feed their children.
A 16-count indictment returned in U.S. District Court in Chicago alleges that from 2010 to 2019 the store owners and several workers schemed to fraudulently redeem checks from the Women, Infants, and Children (“WIC”) program, a federally funded initiative designed to provide a nutritious diet to moderate and low-income infants, children up to five years of age, and pregnant, breastfeeding, and post-partum women.
The charges allege that the defendants knowingly allowed customers to provide their WIC checks as payment for ineligible items at the stores, often at inflated prices. Most of the nine stores identified in the indictment redeemed millions of dollars in WIC checks.
Authorities alleged that the defendants would voluntarily withdraw and later rejoin the program in an attempt to hide their activities, as well as transfer ownership of stores and control of bank accounts to family members and associates in order to disguise their activities.
Charged with fraud are the following:
- Hassan Abdellatif, also known as “Eric,” 33, of Chicago, owner of El Milagro Mini Market and Harding Grocery in Chicago. He is also a Chicago police officer.
- Hamdan Hamdan, also known as “Tony,” 32, of Chicago, owner of La Villita Food Market in Chicago.
- Ehab Khraiwish, 27, of Tinley Park, Ill., owner of Mercado La Estrella in Elgin, Ill.
- Waleed Khrawish, also known as “Wally,” 34, of Melrose Park, Ill., who worked at a convenience store in Melrose Park.
- Alaa Hamdan, 35, of Chicago, who worked at Supermercado El Grande in Addison, Ill.
- Ersely Arita-Mejia, 39, of Arlington Heights, Ill., who worked at Star Mini Market in Mt. Prospect, Ill.
- Fortino Hernandez, 38, of Addison, Ill., who worked at Supermercado El Grande in Addison.
- Marisol Zavala, 29, of McHenry, Ill., who worked at a convenience store in Elgin, Ill.
- Jehad Khrawish, 24, of Chicago, who worked at a convenience store in Melrose Park, Ill.
Department spokesman Tom Ahern said Hassan Abdellatif has been relieved of his police powers.
The indictment also charges Abdellatif with two tax offenses for allegedly willfully failing to file two years of corporate tax returns for Harding Grocery.
Abdellatif was arrested Wednesday and pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Matthew McQuaid, told the Chicago Tribune that Abdellatif "did not commit fraud or steal WIC funds.”
Most of the defendants made their initial appearances Wednesday in federal court in Chicago.
For further detail on how authorities allege the defendants would disguise the scheme, authorities say that beginning in June of 2010 through at least April of 2013, Hassan Abdellatif redeemed $2,075,828.66 in WIC checks before he withdrew his El Milagro Mini Market business from the program.
During that interim of April 2013 through August 2015, authorities alleged that Mr. Abdellatif's associate, Mr. Hamdan, enlisted his In and Out Grocery store in the program from February 2013 through March 2015 and redeemed approximately $2,166,263.04 in WIC checks before withdrawing from the program. Mr. Abdellatif was also on the bank account with that store.
Then Mr. Abdellatif re-enrolled his El Milagro Mini Market store back in the program and, from approximately August 2015 through October 2016, Hassan Abdellatif redeemed approximately $1,838,969.26 in WIC checks.
Meanwhile, after Mr. Hamdan was withdrawing his In and Out Grocery store from the program, he enrolled another store - La Villita Food Market - into the program where, from approximately June 2015 through October 2016, La Villita Food Market redeemed approximately $1,299,231.19 in WIC checks.
For further example, the defendant Mr. Abdellatif and another associate were the only signatories on bank accounts affiliated with a different supermarket located in Chicago that, from approximately December 2014 through July 2015, redeemed approximately $950,041.18 in WIC checks before withdrawing from the program.
In another allegation, it appears that an associate of Mr. Hamdan was able to enlist another business in Elgin to the scheme where, from approximately July 20l4 through July 2018, Supermercado El Grande redeemed approximately $3,530,541.83 in WIC checks.
We won't go through all of the evidence listed in the provided documentation but the total amounts called into question by the U.S. Attorney's office in the indictment is nearly $20,000,000.