Portland man gets over 3 years in prison, ordered to repay $200,000 in aid

Posted Feb. 16, 2012, at 12:05 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A native of Antigua was sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court to a total of 3½ years in federal prison on myriad counts that stemmed from his false claim to be a U.S. citizen.

Besouro Abdul Zagon, 52, also known as Earl Donald Benjamin, also was sentenced to one year of supervised release after completing his prison term, but is expected to be deported after his release.

In addition to prison time, U.S. District Judge George Singal ordered Zagon to pay $198,818 in restitution to state and federal agencies. The judge also ordered that Zagon begin serving his sentence immediately.

Zagon pleaded guilty in October to seven charges, including aggravated identity theft, passport fraud and theft of student aid, health care benefits and nutrition assistance.

Singal sentenced Zagon to 1½ years in prison on all but the aggravated identity theft charge. The judge was required to sentence Zagon to an additional two years on that charge.

By pleading guilty, Zagon admitted to receiving nearly $200,000 in federal aid illegally — $15,752 in federal education aid, $56,181 in nutrition assistance, $61,000 in housing assistance and $65,842 in medical care, according to court documents.

He was indicted in April on 30 counts by a federal grand jury in Portland. In a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the remaining counts were dismissed at sentencing.

Zagon, then named Donald Benjamin, came to the U.S. and Canada in the late 1970s with a touring group from Antigua to demonstrate the Brazilian art of Capoeira, a type of martial art that incorporates elements of dance and music, according to the sentencing memorandum submitted by Federal Public Defender J. Hillary Billings of Portland. Zagon moved with his first wife to Boston in 1981. In 1986, he used the birth certificate and Social Security number of a Boston-born man whose last name also was Benjamin and was born in 1959, the month before Zagon was born, to obtain a U.S. passport under the name Earl Donald Benjamin.

Five years later, he had his name changed in a Massachusetts court to Besouro Abdul Zagon to reflect his African roots, according to court documents.

In August 2001, Zagon, his second wife and five children with her moved to Portland from Massachusetts after he obtained Social Security numbers for the children. Upon arriving in Portland, the family received federal housing assistance after Zagon falsely stated that he and his children, all of whom were born in Antigua between September 1990 and October 1996, were U.S. citizens.

The family began receiving MaineCare and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in 2002, according to court documents. Two years later, Zagon applied for and received financial aid to study massage therapy. To qualify for all of those programs, he lied about his citizenship.

Meanwhile, the real Benjamin experienced problems getting credit, buying a house, starting a business, opening a bank account and obtaining a passport, according to court documents.

“He received notices of delinquent student loans he did not borrow and of traffic tickets he was not issued,” the sentencing memorandum filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated. “In attempts to clear his name, Mr. Benjamin contacted his local police departments in Aurora and Oswego, Ill., in 2005 and the Portland, Maine, police department. He reported the matter to the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration. He hired an attorney [and] wrote his congressman, Dennis Hastert. He experienced little but frustration from trying to clear his name.”

Finally, in May 2010, investigators searched Zagon’s Portland home, where they found documentation of his crimes. Since his arrest that same month, Zagon was free on $10,000 unsecured bail until his sentencing Wednesday.

He faced up to 10 years in prison on the most serious charges and two years in prison on the aggravated identity theft charge. Under the prevailing federal sentencing guidelines, Zagon faced a total sentence of between three and 3½ years in prison.

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