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Engineer gets prison for fraud

Oct. 02, 2012 @ 12:06 AM

HUNTINGTON -- A Lebanese engineer will spend up to a year in prison and pay nearly $298,000 in restitution for his role in a scheme that defrauded the U.S. food stamp program.

Ibrahim Osman Owayda, 35, of Huntington, received his punishment Monday from U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Chambers.

Owayda had pleaded guilty to a single count of aiding and abetting food stamp fraud. The specific incident, $149.83 in food stamp benefits in exchange for $110 cash, occurred Sept. 7, 2011, at The Huntington Mart, a gasoline station Owayda then owned at 1117 Hal Greer Blvd.

It was one incident in a scheme that exchanged federal benefits for cash and other ineligible items, according to court documents and comments at Monday's hearing. The 17-month operation, June 2010 to November 2011, took $297,871 from the nation's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program, or SNAP.

Owayda and his Shepherdston, W.Va., attorney, Sherman Lambert, sought probation Monday. Lambert cited his client's lack of a criminal history, a civil engineering degree from Marshall University and active involvement in the local Muslim community.

Those items earned Chambers' praise, but did not justify probation, he said.

The judge told Owayda federal programs such as SNAP are under attack due to the price that taxpayers bear. Chambers said acts of abuse and fraud, like Owayda's, become examples for those who oppose such government safety nets.

Citing those reasons, but also acknowledging Owayda's positives, Chambers sentenced the defendant to a 1-year, 1-day federal prison sentence. He acknowledged the punishment would not satisfy either side as it was harsher than probation but fell below the sentencing guidelines, which called for a 18- to 24-month prison term.

The punishment also includes three years supervised release and an order to pay $297,871 in restitution. That payment will be separate from, and in addition to, $96,663 already seized and forfeited from three Owayda bank accounts.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Goes opposed probation, insisting that Owayda's scheme amounted to a systematic taking of government assets. He acknowledged Owayda's education and absence of a criminal history, but said such fraud deserves prison as a strong message to deter others.

"He is a bright guy," Goes told the court. "How he ended up here is a mystery."

Owayda explained it as a mistake, apologized and sought mercy. The Lebanese-born immigrant entered the United States in 2001 and became a permanent resident by marriage, according to a memorandum filed by his attorney.

Chambers cited Owayda's cooperation and education, along with his agreement to forfeit a greater sum of money then he profited in, explaining his reason for a prison sentence beneath the minimum guideline. The judge said a longer punishment would serve no deterrent value and further harm Owayda's ability to pay restitution.

Owayda was released on bond at the close of Monday's hearing. He was ordered to continue employment for the time being, but voluntarily surrender once his placement is determined by the federal Bureau of Prisons. Chambers recommended the placement be close to Houston.

The Owayda investigation is one of two food stamp cases prosecuted this year in Huntington. The other case produced three convictions and targeted The ALLINONE Store, formerly a Sunoco gasoline station, at 1954 9th Ave. Together, court documents estimate the stores defrauded the federal food stamp program of more than $420,000 between June 2010 and January 2012.

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