Pasco store target of food stamp fraud probe

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldJune 25, 2014 

PASCO -- Federal, state and local authorities descended on a Pasco grocery store Wednesday as part of a statewide crackdown on the illegal sale of food stamps.

A swarm of unmarked vehicles and a Pasco police car blocked off Atomic Foods on North Fourth Avenue for several hours as officials served a search warrant.

The search was the second in the Mid-Columbia in 24 hours, following a similar raid Tuesday at the Park-N-Pak market in Sunnyside.

Officials from the Department of Social and Health Services fraud division, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General and Food and Nutrition Services participated in the searches.

Local law enforcement in Yakima and Franklin counties also helped.

Investigators asked judges for search warrants for both locations after developing information that store employees or owners were illegally trading cash for Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. The cards are used to buy groceries with government benefits.

The searches netted at least nine food stamp cards that authorities believe were illegally traded, including one card used by an undercover officer, said Steve Lowe, senior director of the state Office of Fraud and Accountability.

Video surveillance footage also was seized, and investigators are working to determine who owns the cards and where they were sold.

Authorities will use the card numbers, and in some cases the names on the cards, to track down card holders to investigate if they helped traffic the cards. The card holders could be prosecuted.

Tuesday, an employee of the Sunnyside store, Rosa Maria Torres-Jimenez, 40, was arrested and booked into jail on suspicion of unlawful sale of food stamps and unlawful redemption of food stamps, a felony.

Torres-Jimenez was led from the store in handcuffs shortly after investigators served the warrant. No other arrests have been made yet in connection with the Sunnyside case.

No arrests were made Wednesday at Atomic Foods, though officials said the investigation is not finished and a charging recommendation could be sent to Franklin County prosecutors to consider.

"One of the reasons we try and combat EBT trafficking is that these benefits are for the most vulnerable in our state, and people who sell these benefits are taking food out of the mouths, literally, of children in the state of Washington," said Lowe, the former Franklin County prosecutor.

Trading EBT cards can be a lucrative business that can potentially defraud the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Lowe said.

Stores must apply and be approved by the USDA in order to accept food stamps for certain products.

It becomes a crime when a store or person buys the card from the cardholder.

A store might pay about half price or less for the cards, then turn around and redeem them for the full value, Lowe said. At the same time, they have sold none of their products, which they can turn around and sell to someone else.

"They are basically making double the amount of money they would make on a regular food stamp card," Lowe said.

Lowe's office identifies stores throughout the state by using undercover officers who attempt to trade their EBT cards with employees or owners, Lowe said. Complaints, tips and a review of data also help Lowe and his team find potential suspects.

Stores can have their EBT privileges stripped, resulting in a sizable loss of income, and store owners can be ordered to pay large settlements if convicted, Lowe said.

"We want to make it known that we are out there and knocking on doors," he said.

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