A Lewiston couple who owns Lewiston’s first halal market was sentenced Tuesday to a total of 19 months in jail for bilking the federal government out of more than $46,000 in housing subsidies.
Roda Abdi, 46, and her husband, Ali-Nassir Ahmed, 54, both of 208 Ash St., Lewiston, appeared in the Androscoggin County Law Library on Tuesday. Each was convicted of a single count of felony theft by deception at a bench trial last year.
Active-Retired Justice Robert Clifford sentenced Abdi to four years in prison with all but 10 months suspended; Ahmed received four years with all but nine months suspended. Both are to spend three years on probation once they’ve served their time in jail.
The couple remained free Tuesday pending appeal. They filed notice to take the case to the state’s highest court shortly after sentencing.
The judge’s sentence nearly matched the jail time prosecutors were seeking in the two cases.
Defense attorneys were seeking one-year sentences with no jail time for their clients.
Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin offered other examples of sentences for welfare fraud similar to those recommended for Abdi and Ahmed.
But unlike those defendants and unlike most Mainers, she said, the Lewiston couple had so much money at their disposal that they were able to buy a multi-unit apartment building in Lewiston and were in the process of buying a second building — all with cash. Deposits to their store accounts over 4½ years totaled more than $3.2 million, she said.
At the same time, they told the housing agency they had no income or assets, or minimal income.
“They have not accepted responsibility,” Robbin told the judge. Two dozen letters submitted to the court on the couple’s behalf suggest “they have not come clean with friends, family and acquaintances.”
They and their business are held up as models of good citizenry and community, Robbin said.
“That becomes a concern to the extent that they are translating for newcomers and helping them to transition to American society. We need to send a message that they are not role models in how they conducted themselves in defrauding the system,” Robbin said.
She noted that neither defendant had expressed remorse, nor accepted responsibility for his or her criminal actions.
Defense attorney Peter Rodway, who defended Ahmed, said neither defendant had addressed the court about their crimes because they planned to appeal their convictions and sentences.
He said the theft the couple was convicted of was from a government agency, not from a person, thereby lessening its personal effect.
Robbing from the government IS robbing from the people who pay taxes. Deport them.
“They were fairly sophisticated businesspeople,” Justice Clifford said of the couple, whose tenants’ rents were subsidized by the government.
“They had little need for the subsidy. They had ample assets,” he said, unlike many people who commit welfare fraud, who are impoverished and seek to bump up their benefits by cheating on paperwork.
In his verdict, Clifford highlighted Abdi and Ahmed’s filing of federal forms requesting aid. They cited little or no income. Abdi listed herself as a salaried employee at the store. Yet, she owned the store that grossed more than $840,000 a year at its height.
They also bought properties.
Between March 2004 and December 2005, Abdi and Ahmed bought apartment buildings at 210 Ash St. and at 199 and 215 Bartlett St. Together, the three properties cost more than $300,000 and were paid for with cash.
Abdi and Ahmed sat quietly throughout the courtroom proceedings, including Tuesday, hiding their faces as they listened to a live translation of the proceedings.
Update March 2015: They appealed and lost.