A massive food stamp fraud investigation culminated this week with the arrest of about 30 people from 22 stores in the Oklahoma City metro area.
Law enforcement investigators and officers swept through the metro area Wednesday and Thursday making the arrests, said Sheree Powell, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Details of the investigation remain sketchy, but the names of two of the individuals charged were made public Thursday after the unsealing of multiple-count indictments in Oklahoma City federal court.
Store owners Muluneh Zeleke and Muhammad Zahid are accused of defrauding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program out of more than $1.8 million.
The program is commonly referred to by its former food stamp program name.
Zeleke, the 54-year-old owner of Z&Z Convenience Store at 2445 N Martin Luther King Ave. in Oklahoma City, is accused of conspiring with clerks and food stamp recipients to defraud the federal food stamp program out of more than $1.2 million.
The money allegedly was taken from October 2007 through February 2010.
Food stamp recipients are given electronic benefit cards similar to debit cards.
Clients are supposed to use the cards to purchase food, and merchants are prohibited from redeeming money credited to the cards for cash.
Zeleke is accused of allowing customers to swipe their cards for cash, with the customers getting about 50 percent of the money generated by the transactions and Zeleke keeping the rest.
Zeleke, who was born in Ethiopia, was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of conspiracy to commit fraud and four counts of aiding and abetting food stamp violations.
He faces a maximum of five years in prison, three years' probation and a $250,000 fine on each of the five counts.
Prosecutors are seeking forfeiture of the $1,224,888 allegedly generated by the fraud.
Zeleke hung up when called by The Oklahoman. His attorney could not be reached for comment.
Joint state, federal inquiry led to arrests
Also charged in a federal indictment was Zahid, 28, of Edmond, who was identified as the owner of Ghani Mart at 2719 NE 23 in Oklahoma City.
Zahid, who was born in Pakistan, is accused of using an almost identical scheme to defraud the food stamp program out of more than $650,000.
The money allegedly was taken from December 2007 through September 2010.
He is accused of one count of conspiracy and five counts of food stamp violations.
He also faces a maximum of five years in prison, three years' probation and $250,000 fine on each count.
Prosecutors are seeking forfeiture of the $652,614 he allegedly obtained through fraud.
Perry Hudson, Zahid's attorney, said he does not know enough about the case to comment.
Powell said the identities of the other individuals arrested Wednesday and Thursday and the amounts they were accused of taking through food stamp fraud were not immediately available Thursday afternoon.
The investigation is continuing, she said.
The arrests were the result of a joint investigation by inspector general's offices for the state Department of Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Powell said.
Federal officials estimate between 3 and 6 percent of food stamp benefits are lost to fraud each year, Powell said.
"Oklahoma has one of the most aggressive food stamp fraud trafficking investigative units in the country," she said.