To the people along Lewis Street in Mixon Town, Salem Joseph is
an accommodating man who'll front them credit for groceries or
lend them cash to help pay the rent.
To the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he's one of
Jacksonville's worst food stamp fraud offenders.
"It's a little different world here," Joseph, 69, said
yesterday afternoon, sitting at his desk in the corner of Joseph
Brothers Inc. meat market and grocery. "If we couldn't rely on
food stamps in this neighborhood, we couldn't rely on anything."
Joseph and other grocers have relied on food stamps too much,
in illegal ways, officials from USDA and other state and federal
agencies said yesterday, in announcing hresults of a yearlong
investigation into food stamp fraud in Jacksonville and two
Joseph, who's been running the family business at Lewis and
Lime streets for 50 years, is one of 230 Jacksonville groceries
investigated in "Operation Trident."
Of those, officials said, 48 were caught trafficking food
stamps -- giving welfare recipients cash for higher amounts of
stamps, then getting full government reimbursement for the
stamps. Another 78 grocers were caught taking food stamps for
items other than food, such as alcohol, tobacco products or
Jacksonville; Seattle-Tacoma, Wash.; and Tidewater, Va., were
targeted in the probe, not because they're considered high fraud
areas but because they're growing metropolitan areas that hadn't
Food stamp fraud has been estimated to cost taxpayers hundreds
of thousands of dollars a year in Jacksonville transactions and
up to $7 million a year statewide.
"It's a good business if you can get away with it -- taking
$1,000 worth of food stamps from somebody, giving them $500 for
them and then getting reimbursed $1,000 by the federal
government," said Virgil Conrad, Southeast administrator for the
USDA Food and Consumer Service.
"But this is literally taking food off the tables of people who
need it," he said. "So our message through this investigation is
that we're getting these fraudulent groceries out of the food
stamp business. We're going to keep after them; they're not
going to get away with it."
Conrad, speaking at a news conference at the U.S. Attorney's
Office, conceded the penalties, which range from warning letters
to fines to permanent disqualification from the food stamp
program, could put some of the groceries out of business.
"But recipients will still have groceries available where they
can use their food stamps," Conrad said. "We've taken that into
None of the businesses have been penalized, Conrad said. And
all can continue, for now, to accept food stamps.
Letters will be sent notifying them of their violations, and
they'll have 14 days to respond, he said.
Traffickers are considered the most serious offenders since
they're blatantly using the food stamps to bilk the government
of money, investigators said. When asked yesterday who was the
most prolific trafficker caught in Jacksonville, they said
Joseph Brothers Inc.
"They come to mind in terms of the most transactions by our
undercover investigators," said Joseph McLin, a compliance
officer with the USDA, which is responsible for the nation's
food stamp program.
Investigators wouldn't estimate how much Joseph or any other
grocers had cost the taxpayers in misused food stamps.
About 85 percent …