What do an Iranian millionaire, a state senator, a drug dealer and a polygamist have in common? They all face charges of misusing food stamps this year.
Around 44 million people received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps, in 2016. The whole program cost about $70 billion.
Generally, only 1 cent of each dollar is spent fraudulently, according to the most recent available data from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which manages the program. Still, that’s about $700 million dollars of federal taxpayer money that was likely wasted this past year.
Here are few of the strangest cases of food stamp fraud in 2016.
State senator caught on the dole
An Arizona Democratic lawmaker was indicted for illegally getting food stamps and falsifying her application to the program in June. (RELATED: Democratic Lawmaker Indicted On Food Stamp Fraud)
Cecilia Velasquez eventually pleaded guilty to charges that she gave a false address on a food stamps application, and falsely claimed to have two dependents. She also admitted to letting two other people use her Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card.
Velasquez lost her Senate seat, and now is on probation because she got $1,726 worth of food stamps between 2013 and 2015.
Millionaire descended from Iranian royalty got $8,000 in food stamps
An Ohio millionaire descended from Iranian royalty was indicted for welfare fraud in December after prosecutors allege he fraudulently took $45,000 in Medicare benefits and received $8,400 in food stamps.
Mahvi, 65, insists that he is innocent, that even though he has an 8,000-square-foot home, complete with horse stables, a swimming pool, and a garage where he parks his Lexus, his family gets very little income and lives off of loans from friends.
Local prosecutors disagree, and have connected the man to a $4 million account in a Swiss bank. Mahvi is connected to oil companies and holds a majority share in a luxury hotel and resort located on the island of St. Lucia.
Mormon polygamist leaders allegedly told their congregants to donate their food stamps to the church
Eleven leaders of the Fundamentalist Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon polygamist sect, including the fugitive Lyle Steed Jeffs, were charged with conspiracy to defraud the food stamps program this year.
The FLDS leaders believe food stamps, like every other asset and possession, belong to the church and community as a whole. This runs directly against regulations governing the SNAP program. Some were released over the summer, but violated the terms of their release by meeting together. They went back to prison where they await trial next year. (RELATED: Alleged Polygamist Fraudsters Argue Religious Right To Donate Food Stamps)
Prosecutors argue the church leaders used $12 million worth of food stamps — belonging to various congregants — to stock shelves in their community stores and used proceeds to pay for things like new trucks and home repairs.
Jeffs slipped his ankle monitor in June and has not been heard from since. Authorities offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to his capture, but the man is so deep in hiding that his own legal counsel wondered this fall whether the de facto leader of the polygamist sect had actually been raptured by Jesus.
Store owner “used food stamps program as an ATM”
Michael Paul Atkinson Jr., owner of Midway Market in Macon, Ga., raked in more than $5 million by making fake charges to customers’ EBT cards. He was sentenced to five years in prison. (RELATED: Georgia Man ‘Used Food Stamp Program As An ATM,’ Defrauds State Of $5 Million)
“The defendant used the food stamp program as an ATM,” U.S. Attorney John Horn said in a news release from the Department of Justice.
From 2010 to 2015, Atkinson would ring up completely fake items on a cash register, charge the items to a customer’s EBT card, then give the customer cash to buy ineligible products like non-food items, alcohol or tobacco, from the store. Atkinson rang up $5.14 million over a five-year period.
New York man allegedly sold synthetic pot for food stamps
Speaking of ineligible food stamps items, one man was caught this year selling Spice, a synthetic marijuana product, to food stamps users.
“Yousif Mosleh was charged with peddling dangerous synthetic drugs in New York City neighborhoods and funding his drug sales by abusing a system created to assist the most vulnerable in our society,” Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for Manhattan, said in a statement.
A sting operation involving criminal informants caught Mosleh selling packages of K2, made from dried, leafy plant matter sprayed with chemicals. When ingested, it delivers a high similar to the THC found in marijuana.
Authorities arrested Mosleh in September and charged him with conspiracy to violate the SNAP program.
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Editor’s Note: This story initially reported that SNAP waste was around 70 million, but that number is actually $700 million.
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