Food Stamp Crackdown

Article excerpt

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

other cities.

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

clothing.

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

been investigated.

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

consideration."

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 of the grocers caught are small neighborhood

stores as opposed to major supermarkets. …