Federal charges have been filed against dozens of people in Georgia who allegedly set up a scheme that funneled $18 million worth of food stamps through grocery stores in what a Department of Justice official is calling “one of the largest federal food program frauds ever.”
Fifty-four people were indicted for their roles in the massive fraud which involved the illegal purchase of WIC and food stamp benefits.
The 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.”
Another 34 defendants were indicted for selling their benefits. Through the WIC program, participants receive 3-month supplies of vouchers which can be exchanged for food at authorized stores. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) provides food stamp benefits to low-income families.
It is illegal to sell WIC and SNAP benefits for cash, though that did not stop the 88 people involved in the scam.
“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 DOJ’s charge reads.
After setting up grocery store operations throughout Georgia, the defendants bought the benefits for a fraction of their face value.
The defendants then allegedly laundered the $18 million they received from the scheme.
Another 34 defendants who were charged separately allegedly sold over $1,000 worth of WIC and food stamps for cash.
“This prosecution is one of the largest federal food program frauds ever brought,” said U.S. Attorney Edward J. Tarver in a statement.
The 54 defendants were charged with one count each of mail and wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. The charges carry a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
The government seeks the forfeiture of $20 million in bank accounts and assets, including two luxury vehicles, a 2008 Mercedes Benz and a 2008 Land Rover. Defendants began appearing in federal court on Tuesday and will continue to appear on Wednesday.