AUBURN — A Lewiston couple appeared in court Thursday to deny charges of welfare fraud two and a half years after federal agents raided the wife's market on Bartlett Street.
Roda O. Abdi, 44, and her husband, Ali-Nassir H. Ahmed, 52, of 208 Ash St. each pleaded not guilty to a charge of felony theft, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, in connection with taking federal housing assistance money.
Abdi also was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of attempted theft in connection with trying to redeem federal vouchers earmarked for items needed by new mothers and their children. That charge is punishable by up to 364 days in jail.
Their morning arraignment was aided by an interpreter who translated for the couple from English to Somali and to the judge from Somali to English.
The Androscoggin County grand jury indictments handed up last week had been impounded by the court after prosecutors expressed fears the couple might flee.
They were told Thursday to surrender their passports and not to leave the state, as conditions of their release.
They posted $50,000 surety against the apartment building in which they live. The judge also offered the option of $25,000 cash bail.
More than a dozen members of the Somali community attended the courtroom hearings Thursday.
Investigators say the couple applied for U.S. Housing and Urban Development rental assistance for an apartment they rented at 149 Bartlett St., but failed to disclose their real estate holdings and income. The apartment building in which they live is owned by Abdi through a limited liability corporation called 210 Ash St. LLC, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said. Abdi also owns a building at 199 Bartlett St. that houses her market, A&R Halal Market, as well as apartments, called 199-214 Bartlett St. LLC.
The couple received roughly $18,000 in rental assistance at their apartment at 149 Bartlett St. over two years beginning in 2006, Robbin said. The total amount they received was roughly $58,000, but, due to the statute of limitations, they can only be prosecuted for the assistance they received during the years 2006-08, Robbin said.
Investigators said Abdi was seeking to fraudulently redeem copies of customers' vouchers from the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program for an amount more than $1,000 and less than $2,000, Robbin said. Those vouchers are available for supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk, according to a government website. Abdi was attempting to redeem copies of the vouchers, claiming the bank had lost the originals, Robbin said.
Ahmed was arrested on a warrant earlier this week and jailed until his Thursday court appearance. A warrant for Abdi's arrest was recalled Thursday after she appeared at Androscoggin County Superior Court.
Federal agents had raided Abdi's halal in February 2010, apparently serving her with a search warrant. Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Treasury converged on the store mid-morning and drove off mid-afternoon after packing their vehicles with about eight boxes of evidence.
Abdi was referenced in Sun Journal stories as the owner of the market, dating back to 2003. She told reporters at that time that she imported goat meat from as far away as Philadelphia because no Maine farmer slaughtered goats according to Muslim law.
In a Mother Jones magazine story, Abdi said she also offered henna to decorate women's hands as well as all of the ingredients for a variety of Somali dishes.