Kirsters Baish| The results of a multi-agency under cover investigation into the exchange of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for cold hard cash in at least one case, cocaine, were announced on Tuesday by Sheriff Mike Williams. Between 2012 and 2017, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detectives have worked alongside federal and state agencies in order to document 22,000+ in fraudulent transactions with a whopping $3.7 million in taxpayer money involved.
Williams stated, “These people are selling or stealing money from hardworking taxpayers right here in our community, and they are abusing a program that is meant to help people.”
Williams explained that the operation, which they are calling Operation Half-Back, had officers observing 115 people in 390 fraudulent transactions between February to July 2017. These felony cases will be prosecuted by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office.
Bondi released a statement in which she applauded the efforts by law enforcement. She explained, “These schemes are very active in our state, and I look forward to my office holding these defendants accountable. It is because of their diligence and hard work that this scheme was put to an end.”
Investigators explained that anyone with SNAP or EBT cards would have to provide the buyer with their pin number. Only then would the money be deposited into their accounts.
It was explained by Williams that in most cases, the person receiving food stamps gets roughly 50 cents per every $1 of SNAP money used. Every single transaction was recorded.
The operation originally focused on operators of brick-and-mortar stores, but investigators learned that many of the perpetrators became mobile business — such as meat, seafood and produce vendors — so they could apply to the U.S Department of Agriculture to accept SNAP benefits. Williams said they sold very little merchandise, as most of their volume was exchanging SNAP benefits for cash.
Those accused include 21 people considered recruiters or intermediaries charged with organized schemes to defraud and public assistance fraud.
There were also 177 people accused of selling their benefits who face charges of public assistance fraud — most of those felonies because the transaction involved more than $200. The Sheriff’s Office said 161 warrants are still waiting to be issued.
Bondi’s statement also explained, “Food stamp trafficking steals from Florida’s hardworking taxpayers. 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.”
News4Jax was told by the Office of Public Benefits Integrity that if those who were arrested are actually found guilty of fraud, they will have to pay that money back.
High Hyatt, a hardworking taxpayer, explained, “It’s very frustrating because the people who actually have a need for the EBT cards are getting shorted.”
Jasmine Coleman recently applied for benefits from SNAP. She is upset to know that people use the system when families like hers are suffering.
She explained, “To support my daughters and me, I’m a server and I don’t make that much and food is starting to get very expensive. It’s making it harder for us to receive benefits and for us to actually get support and use it the right way.”
Bondi explained that these kinds of crimes are not acceptable.
Bondi stated, “We will not tolerate these disgraceful acts, and we will continue to protect our Florida taxpayers and the countless legitimate recipients of these benefits.”
Williams spoke of four specific businesses that he felt were the largest offenders that were unearthed during the extensive investigation.
News4Jax reported these businesses as the following:
Lawaun Walker’s Produce
- Open from May 2012 to November 2015
- 7,390 fraudulent transactions
- SNAP transactions totaling just over $1 million.
- Two men arrested.
RNS Mobile Meats and Sisters Mobile Meats
- Operated from October 2015 to August 2017
- 3,958 fraudulent transactions
- Total SNAP sales: $572,282
- One man, three women arrested.
- Open November 2013 to August 2015
- 3,958 transactions
- Total SNAP sales: $1.2 million.
- Three men, one woman arrested
URKO Ballers Produce
- In business from May 2012 to November 2015
- 7,164 fraudulent transactions
- Total SNAP sales of nearly $1.1 million
- One man, one woman arrested