A federal indictment unsealed Tuesday in Savannah charges 54 defendants for their alleged roles in a massive, statewide scheme to defraud the WIC and Food Stamp programs.
The indictment represents one of the largest federal food-supplement program frauds ever prosecuted, U.S. Attorney Edward J. Tarver said at an afternoon press conference.
The fraud involved the purchase of more than $18 million in Women, Infant and Children (WIC) vouchers and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamp benefits, for some of the nation’s neediest families and children. Benefits were purchased for cash through a number of purported grocery stores in Savannah, Garden City and other cities throughout the state, then reclaimed for the full amount.
Other cities involved included Macon, Atlanta, Marietta, Lithonia, LaGrange, Stone Mountain, Riverdale, and elsewhere.
In addition to the 54-defendant indictment, 34 other defendants have been charged in separate indictments for allegedly selling their WIC vouchers and food stamp benefits for cash. Those defendants allegedly sold for cash more than $1,000 worth of their own benefits or of benefits for minor children,
The 54-defendant indictment alleges that a number of defendants conspired to open purported grocery stores in for the purpose of buying WIC and Food Stamp benefits for cash.
The scheme ”goes to the heart of the program,” Tarver said, because it takes those benefits for uses other than what the program is intended to do. He called that “egregious.”
“The government alleges that the defendants stole taxspayer-funded benefits intended to feed the most needy families and children in our communities,” Tarver said.
First Assistant U.S. James Durham said that 70 of the 88 individuals involved had been apprehended by Tuesday afternoon in what FBI Supervisory Senior Resident Agent Eugen Kowel said were actions that began “at the crack of dawn” and involved combined actions by federal and local law enforcement officers. He called the action “an example of what we can accomplish in the law enforcement community when we work in partnership.”
According to the 34-page indictment, one of the stores was Super Kids Variety Store located at 302 W. Victory Drive in Savannah which was managed by defendant Henry “Grand Hustle” Ward, who also worked out of Platinum Kids, at 612 Highway 80 West in Garden City.
The scheme involved the alleged illegal purchase of more than $18 million worth of benefits between December 2009 and December 2012, the indictment charged.
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 government said.
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 more than $18 million in proceeds received from their fraud upon the WIC and Food Stamp programs.
Karen Citzen-Wilcox, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General, said the investigation and prosecution “should send a strong zero-tolerance message to those individuals who create businesses for the purpose of specifically defrauding the taxpayer” benefit programs.