Nearly 200 Busted in $3.7-Million Food-Stamp Fraud Operation
More than a year after the Obama administration slammed American taxpayers with a record-high tab to provide an unprecedented number of people with food stamps, the fraud continues full-throttle in the bloated welfare program. Authorities in north Florida arrested nearly 200 people for operating a sophisticated ring in which millions of dollars in food stamps were fraudulently exchanged for cash and drugs. Keep in mind that food stamps—renamed by the Obama administration Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to eliminate stigma—are designed to help nourish the nation’s most needy.
For years Judicial Watch has reported extensively on the rampant fraud in the program that cost U.S. taxpayers a bewildering $80.4 billion in one year to provide a record 46 million people with the welfare benefit during the Obama tenure. Even then, a federal audit revealed that many who didn’t qualify for food stamps received them under a special “broad-based” eligibility program that disregards income and asset requirements. The expansion was part of the former president’s mission to eradicate “food insecure households” in the U.S. To accomplish it, the administration spent millions of dollars on ad campaigns to recruit more food-stamp recipients, even doling out hefty cash rewards to local governments that signed up the most people. One state even bragged about a $5 million performance bonus it got from the feds for its “swift processing of applications.”
Not surprisingly, the food stamp program became a hotbed of fraud and corruption. Recipients use social media to illegally sell and buy food stamps online and others use the welfare benefit to buy drugs, weapons and other contraband from unscrupulous vendors, according to a federal audit that also says some trade food stamps for reduced amounts of cash. The fraud costs the government hundreds of millions of dollars, the audit discloses. This was back in 2012 when the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that distributes food stamps, told Congress about the serious issues plaguing the program. Things got so out of control that the Obama administration dedicated $7 million to crack down on food-stamp fraud in 2014. Among the anti-fraud initiatives that the money funded were strategies to identify and successfully investigate attempts to buy or sell SNAP benefits online using social media such as Facebook, Twitter or ecommerce websites like Craigslist and eBay.
More than a year after Obama left the USDA program in disarray, the scams continue. In the recently busted Florida operation, more than 22,000 fraudulent transactions totaling $3.7 million were documented by a task force of local and federal authorities. It has been coined Operation Half-Back and a Jacksonville news report says undercover officers personally observed 115 individuals commit 390 fraudulent transactions involving food stamps. In most cases the food-stamp recipient took 50 cents per $1 in benefit. Some of the corrupt vendors were stores but many were mobile businesses that sell food and have USDA approval to accept food stamps as payment. Among the biggest offenders are a produce business that recorded 7,164 fraudulent transactions for $1.1 million, another that had 7,390 transactions totaling $1 million, a seafood store that recorded 3,958 transactions for $1.2 million and a mobile meat vender that had 3,958 fraudulent transactions for $572,282.
The undercover sting started back in 2012, the year the Obama administration shattered food-stamp records. Law enforcement agencies created fictitious businesses, according to the Florida Attorney General’s office, which disclosed last week that more than 115 individuals have been charged with felonies and 61 others with misdemeanors. Though the federal government doles out food stamps, in Florida a state agency called Department of Children and Families administers it to provide nutrition assistance to vulnerable populations such as children, senior citizens and families in economic distress. “Food stamp trafficking steals from Florida’s hardworking taxpayers,” Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement. “The SNAP/EBT program is designed to provide services to the most vulnerable among us and for anyone to take advantage of this system is shameful.”
Florida seems to be a hotbed of food-stamp rackets. Less than two years ago the feds busted the largest food-stamp fraud operation in U.S. history in south Florida. Twenty-two defendants in the largely black and Hispanic areas of Miami-Dade County known as Opa-Locka and Hialeah swindled the government out of $13 million by fraudulently trading food stamps for cash. The crooked vendors operated food and produce stands at a local flea market as part of then-First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to eradicate “food deserts,” common in poor, minority communities where fresh, healthy food is tough to find or often unavailable. The feds say the business owners and their employees let food-stamp recipients use their welfare benefit to get cash in exchange for a cut of the money.