National Editor Tom KarstI just did a Google search for "food stamp fraud" and found a story had just been posted six hours ago about a wayward Illinois grocer. The gist: the grocer defrauded government and food stamp programs to the tune of $844,000 over two years. It was predictable enough. From the story:
Khaled Saleh, the owner of Sunset Food Market in Waukegan, has been charged with illegally exchanging cash with customers using food stamp cards and nutrition coupons.
Yay, we caught the wrongdoer. But $844,000?
Just about a week earlier, the USDA Office of Inspector General issued a press release about another case.
This time, John William of Fox Point, Wisc., “redeemed approximately $778,000 in QUEST benefits from food stamp benefit recipients who were not purchasing food, but instead receiving cash for providing access to their QUEST benefits.”
Another bad apple, spoiling the notion that food stamps are actually having their entire intended effect.
The USDA has some bad public relations in that regard, but on Feb. 21 the agency announced “tough new measures” to ensure the integrity of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
From the release:
"Where there is a will to commit malfeasance, bad actors will try to find a way, and we must do everything we can to stay ahead of the curve," Concannon said. "Today's announcement reaffirms USDA's ongoing commitment to cracking down on abuse and protecting taxpayers' investment in this critical nutrition lifeline."
Today's announcement codifies an expanded legal definition of "trafficking" that incorporates not only the direct exchange of SNAP benefits for cash but other indirect methods of obtaining cash for SNAP benefits. The expanded definition now includes so-called "water dumping," or the purchase of beverages in containers with returnable deposits for the sole purpose of discarding the contents and returning the containers to obtain cash refund deposits; and the sale or purchase of products originally purchased with SNAP benefits for purposes of exchanging those products for cash or other items.
USDA is also seeking comment on a new proposal that would authorize USDA to immediately suspend payments to retailers suspected of flagrant trafficking violations from accepting SNAP benefits. Currently, when a retailer is suspected of trafficking, USDA must first conduct an investigation before suspending the retailer. If USDA determines that a retailer is a flagrant trafficker, the Department would be authorized to immediately suspend its redemptions. Such a step would happen concurrently with the retailer being charged; thereby allowing the Department to hold funds that might ultimately be forfeited by the store if the disqualification is upheld.
USDA has front line responsibility for overseeing and enforcing the law with respect to the more than 238,000 retailers that are authorized to accept SNAP benefits. While the vast majority of businesses participating in SNAP are honest and play by the rules, USDA continues to strengthen sanctions against those few bad actors seeking to take advantage of the program. Last year, USDA compliance analysts and investigators took action to permanently disqualify 1,387 stores for trafficking in SNAP benefits (i.e. exchanging SNAP benefits for cash) or falsifying an application.
SNAP – the nation's first line of defense against hunger – helps put food on the table for millions of low income families and individuals every month. The largest of USDA's 15 nutrition assistance programs, it has never been more critical to the fight against hunger. Nearly half of SNAP participants are children and more than 40 percent of recipients live in households with earnings.
Today's announcement is part of the Obama Administration's ongoing Campaign to Cut Waste designed to fight fraud, abuse and misuse in federal programs. For more information about USDA efforts to combat fraud, visit the Stop SNAP fraud website at www.fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud.
TK: When you think of the job of keeping 228,000 retailers (and 48 million participants, by the way!) on the straight and narrow - at the same time the agency is working to expand access to healthy food for participants - well, it is no easy task. Clearly, more scrutiny of retailers is required.