Dozens of people in Georgia charged in illegal food stamp fraud scheme

Published 06/11 2014 10:48PM

Updated 06/17 2014 11:43AM

A federal indictment, unsealed Tuesday in Savannah, charges 54 defendants for their alleged roles in a massive fraud upon the WIC and Food Stamp programs.

The indictment represents one of the largest federal food program frauds ever prosecuted, which fraud allegedly involved the purchase of more than $18 million in WIC vouchers and Food Stamp benefits for cash through a number of purported grocery stores set up throughout Georgia.

In addition to the 54-defendant indictment, 34 other defendants have been charged separately for allegedly selling their WIC vouchers and Food Stamp benefits for cash.

The indictment alleges that a number of defendants conspired to open purported grocery stores in Savannah, Macon, Atlanta, Garden City, Lithonia, LaGrange, Stone Mountain, Riverdale, and elsewhere for the purpose of buying WIC and Food Stamp benefits for cash.

Once the purported stores were opened and approved as WIC and Food Stamp vendors, many of the defendants allegedly canvassed low-income neighborhoods and solicited WIC and Food Stamp participants to illegally exchange their benefits not for food but for cash. The defendants then allegedly bought WIC and Food Stamp benefits for cash at a fraction of the amount they received from the USDA by redeeming the benefits they had purchased. The defendants also allegedly conspired to launder over $18 million in proceeds received from their fraud upon the WIC and Food Stamp programs.

The 34 defendants charged separately from the larger indictment are alleged to have sold for cash over $1,000 worth of their own WIC or Food Stamp benefits and the WIC or Food Stamp benefits of their minor children.

“This prosecution n is one of the largest federal food program frauds ever brought," United States Attorney Edward J. Tarver said, "The government alleges that the defendants stole taxpayer-funded benefits intended to feed the most needy families and children in our communities. Fraudsters beware: the U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to working with our federal and state partners to investigate and prosecute complex financial fraud, especially when it attacks government programs funded by taxpayers of the United States.”

“This investigation and prosecution should send a strong zero-tolerance message to those individuals who create businesses for the purpose of specifically defrauding the taxpayer funded WIC and SNAP programs,” said Karen Citizen-Wilcox, Special Agent in Charge, USDA-OIG-Investigations. “It should also serve as a warning to all stores, that participate in the WIC and SNAP programs as vendors, that fraud and trafficking (purchasing those benefits for cash) will be vigorously investigated and prosecuted by the USDA-OIG, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and all its federal, state, and local partners that have a stake in ensuring that fraud is eliminated from taxpayer funded programs.

“The enduring cooperation between the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), local law enforcement, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office should send a clear signal to those contemplating WIC fraud,” said Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., DPH’s commissioner, who commended the prosecution. “We are committed to working together to detect and eliminate fraud and to preserve precious funds for those who need it most.”

J. Britt Johnson, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Atlanta Field Office, stated, “The protection of such important federally funded programs as the WIC and Food Stamp program from such wholesale fraud is paramount. The families and their children who truly need and rely on these programs count on that law enforcement protection and the taxpayers demand it. The FBI will continue to work with its many and varied law enforcement partners in combating such rampant cases of fraud against the U.S. government.”

“The WIC and Food Stamp programs are designed to provide necessary nutrition for the most vulnerable members of our society,” said Brock D. Nicholson, Special Agent in Charge of HSI Atlanta. “HSI is proud to have assisted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others in protecting this program from alleged fraudulent activity in the state of Georgia.”

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