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FDLE Arrests Food Stamp Traffickers in Massive Statewide Sweep

 
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) today announced the arrest of 21 store owners and clerks in an intensive 10-week, statewide undercover operation to combat public assistance fraud. Operation Cash Exchange targeted retailers illegally providing cash from government issued Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards which are authorized only for the purchase of approved food staples. The operation began Jan. 7 and culminated with the execution of search and arrest warrants at 15 stores in 10 cities on March 17.

“These stores were trafficking in tax-payer dollars,” said Commissioner Gerald Bailey. “Taking cash from the food stamp program is a felony, and we rounded up retailers who were running this scam as a part of their daily routine.”

During the operation, undercover operatives visited convenience stores, small grocery markets and gas stations and used food stamp benefits on undercover EBT cards to acquire cash and other items ineligible for purchase. Store owners and clerks rang through a transaction that indicated a food staple purchase, but then provided a portion of the transaction amount back to the undercover operative in the form of cash and retained a portion for themselves. In most cases, few or no food items were purchased.

In addition to the cash transactions, stores also allowed the card to be used to purchase prohibited items such as alcohol and cigarettes, subsequently avoiding paying taxes on those items. In two stores, the undercover operative successfully purchased scratch-off lottery tickets. In one Central Florida store, an undercover operative used the card to purchase a small quantity of the prescription pain killer Oxycodone.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) which administers the federal food stamp program, the 15 stores targeted during the operation have committed an estimated $3.5 million in food stamp fraud over the last 12 months. More than $10,000 in cash exchanges occurred during the operation.

"At a time when more Floridians than ever need our help, those who steal from this critical program are stealing from the 2.5 million people in this state who are in legitimate need of food stamps," said Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon. "I applaud FDLE's aggressive efforts to punish this especially heinous form of fraud. Such arrests will ensure that honest Floridians who need a helping hand receive that assistance."

The following individuals were arrested during the operation:
• Syeda L. Alam, 37, of Ft. Myers, Fla., who works at Discount Food and Beverage in Fort Myers, Fla., was charged with food stamp fraud. She was booked into the Lee County Jail;
• Jorge Garcia-Rodriguez, 46, of Naples, Fla., who works at Golden Bakery in Naples, Fla., was charged with food stamp fraud and trafficking. He was booked into the Collier County Jail;
• Meaza Tilahun, 38, of Jacksonville, Fla., who works at Ethio Shell in Jacksonville, Fla., was charged with bank fraud, scheme to defraud and public assistance fraud. She was booked into the Duval County Jail;
• Zewedeneh Kassa, 41, of Jacksonville, Fla., who works at Ethio Shell in Jacksonville, Fla., was charged with bank fraud, scheme to defraud and public assistance fraud. He was booked into the Duval County Jail;
• Assefa Abegaze , 58, of Orange Park, Fla., who works at M&Y Food Store in Jacksonville, Fla., was charged with bank fraud, scheme to defraud and public assistance fraud. He was booked into the Duval County Jail;
• Yeshe Tefera, 47, of Orange Park, Fla., who works at M&Y Food Store in Jacksonville, Fla., was charged with bank fraud, scheme to defraud and public assistance fraud. She was booked into the Duval County Jail;
• Alexis Bain, 30, of Miami, Fla., who works at Fazi Food Store in Miami, Fla., was charged with grand theft, public assistance fraud, possession of marijuana with intent to sell and drug paraphernalia. She was booked into the Turner Gifford Knight Correctional Center;
• Kervin Julmist, 32, of Miami, Fla., who works at New Herizon in Miami, Fla., was charged with grand theft and public assistance fraud. He was booked into the Turner Gifford Knight Correctional Center;
• Tyrone Harris, 38, of Miami, Fla., who works at Partners Meat & Fish Market, Inc. in Miami, Fla., was charged with grand theft and public assistance fraud. He was booked into the Turner Gifford Knight Correctional Center;
• Joseph Bshara, 24, of Miami, Fla., who works at Partners Meat & Fish Market, Inc. in Miami, Fla., was charged with grand theft and public assistance fraud. He was booked into the Turner Gifford Knight Correctional Center;
• Niketut Lestari, 28, of Miami, Fla., who works at Partners Meat & Fish Market, Inc. in Miami, Fla., was charged with grand theft and public assistance fraud. She was booked into the Turner Gifford Knight Correctional Center;
• Rami Bshara, 28, of Miami, Fla., who works at Partners Meat & Fish Market, Inc. in Miami, Fla., was charged with grand theft and public assistance fraud. He was booked into the Turner Gifford Knight Correctional Center;
• Kamleshbhai R. Patel, 47, of Deland, Fla., who works at Prayosha Discount Market in Orlando, Fla., was charged with social welfare fraud. He was booked into the Orange County Jail;
• Gregory J. Greene, 33, of Pensacola, Fla., who works at Greene’s Produce in Pensacola, Fla., was charged with fraud and theft. He was booked into the Escambia County Jail;
• Charles T. Greene, 61, of Pensacola, Fla., who works at Greene’s Produce in Pensacola, Fla., was charged with fraud and theft. He was booked into the Escambia County Jail;
• Wayne R. Stumbo, 46, of Tampa, Fla., who works at Big Daddy’s Quick E Drive By in Tampa, Fla., was charged with trafficking in illegal drugs, possession of cannabis and food stamp fraud. He was booked into the Hillsborough County Jail;
• Tabitha Z. Wood, 34, of Tampa, Fla., who works at Big Daddy’s Quick E Drive By in Tampa, Fla., was charged with food stamp fraud. She was booked into the Hillsborough County Jail;
• Curtis Raymond Walker, 51, of Tampa, Fla., who works at Big Daddy’s Quick E Drive By in Tampa, Fla., was charged with food stamp fraud. He was booked into the Hillsborough County Jail;
• Teoman Markal, 46, Port Richey, Fla., who works at Checkers Mini Mart in Port Richey, Fla., was charged with food stamp fraud. He was booked into the Pasco County Jail;
• Tracy Lamar Burr, 22, of Tampa, Fla., who works at Hawkins and Bell’s Grocery (The Spot) in Tampa, Fla., was charged with food stamp fraud. He was booked into the Hillsborough County Jail;
• Mohammad Ali Abukhder, 33, of Tampa, Fla., who works at MZ Food Store in Tampa, Fla., was charged with food stamp fraud. He was booked into the Hillsborough County Jail.

Additional arrests are expected. In addition to state charges, the store owners may face federal penalties by the USDA for violating food stamp program guidelines. These penalties may include fines, temporary or permanent disqualification, and forfeiture of property.

Stores that sold lottery tickets and unauthorized items will be referred to the Florida Department of Lottery and the Florida Department of Revenue for further action.

FDLE will soon begin Phase II of the operation that will target actual public assistance recipients who illegally obtain cash through food stamp benefits on EBT cards.

The federal food stamp program is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Paper food stamps are no longer issued; instead, benefits are awarded in the form of credit on EBT cards. The USDA establishes the criteria for authorized food purchases, determines which stores are authorized to accept food stamp benefits, and has the authority to administer sanctions to stores violating program guidelines. The Department of Children and Families determines SNAP eligibility and allotments and distributes benefits to individuals. FDLE’s Public Assistance Fraud Program investigates misuse and abuse in the state’s public assistance programs.

MEDIA NOTE: Please visit this Web site to download and rebroadcast videos and information pertaining to Operation Cash Exchange. Please do not link directly to this site as it will only be available for a limited time: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/Content/CashExchange/cashexchange.aspx



For Further Information Contact:
Heather Smith, Kristen Chernosky or Mike Morrison
FDLE Office of Public Information
(850) 410-7001