Two employees of the Blue Bridge Motel in Kennewick are accused of trading rooms for customers' food assistance cards to buy groceries.
The charges against Bhavishan Rai and Inderjit Kumar are the result of an undercover operation as state criminal investigators continue their crackdown on people abusing the Food Stamp Program.
Rai and Kumar are the first to be charged in the Tri-Cities with trafficking the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card -- or Washington Quest Card, according to Steve Lowe, senior director of the Department of Social and Health Services' Office of Fraud and Accountability.
Lowe's office has been working with local law enforcement agencies, and he credits Kennewick police with first getting the tip in this case and contacting his investigators for the joint operation.
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"Anywhere there is trafficking of food benefits, it is a problem for us," Lowe told the Herald. "Those benefits are meant for people who are truly needy, not for those who want to profit off them."
Rai, 57, and Kumar, 30, face Dec. 2 trial dates in Benton County Superior Court. They are free on their personal recognizance while the case is pending.
Rai is charged with two counts of unlawful redemption of food stamps. She manages the Kennewick motel.
Kumar faces one charge of unlawful redemption of food stamps. He lives and works at the 300 N. Ely St. motel, court documents said.
They have pleaded innocent, and both are represented by Kennewick attorney Jim Egan.
When the state Office of Fraud and Accountability learned that a Tri-Cities business allegedly was trafficking in EBT cards and trading services for goods, Lowe said his investigators set up the operation with Kennewick detectives and provided undercover cards to be traced.
DSHS clients often receive their food or cash benefits on an EBT card, which is reloaded monthly. The client's name is not embossed on the card so it can be transferred easily to another person, though a PIN is required to access the benefits.
Police in this case used a confidential informant who claimed they had previously swapped an EBT card for a Blue Bridge Motel room and also received a cash payment based on a percentage of their card's balance, court documents said.
The confidential informant was sent in July 10 with the undercover EBT card, and returned with $60 and a room key for the card, documents said. The unredeemed value of the card was $329.32.
Detectives then watched Rai and another female employee go shop at a grocery store and two specialty food stores in the Tri-Cities, court documents said.
Transaction records of the card that had been issued to the confidential informant matched the locations and times that Rai was at the stores, documents said.
The confidential informant reportedly stayed in the motel room that night and told police that Rai did not return the card. Instead, she used it again the morning of July 11 at another store, documents said.
Police later searched the motel and found four additional EBT cards in other names in a desk inside the office, court documents said.
Transaction records for one man's card show it was used at a grocery store a total of three times in April and May. Video from the store puts Rai there on those dates buying merchandise with the card, documents said.
A state investigator, looking at the transaction history for that man's food stamp benefits card, also found that it was used in a store May 10 and Kumar is seen on video using the card and entering the PIN to access the money, documents said.
Lowe told the Herald that the assumption is that Rai and Kumar were using the EBT cards to grocery shop for themselves. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits can only be used to buy food products.
-- The Welfare Fraud Hotline is 800-562-6906.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; email@example.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer