According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, it is "the largest combined financial fraud loss for a food stamp trafficking takedown in history."
All in all, the store owners ripped off the government of about $13 million.
Thousands of beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) took their EBT cards down to the flea, but instead of making the approved healthy food purchases, they instead got cold hard cash to spend on whatever they wanted.
The 22 flea market retailers had banded together in a complicated scheme in which they abused a provision of the SNAP program that allowed recipients to use their benefits at farmer's markets to buy fresh, locally-sourced produce and meats. The retailers would ring up an inflated or, in many cases, completely fictional total, and then hand over a reduced amount. The rest of the money was kept by the store owner as a fee.
“Food stamp trafficking is a serious crime tantamount to stealing from the hardworking taxpayers in our state,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi in a statement. “These retailers and operators thought they had devised the perfect scheme to steal from the government."
"This case exemplified how EBT fraud is so prevalent in our jurisdiction," added City of Miami Police Department Chief Rodolfo Llanes. "The Miami Police Department is very proud of its role in this case while working with our state and federal partners in order to bring this case to a successful conclusion.”
The list of agencies involved in the take-down is incredibly long, but includes officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State Attorney General and State CFO's offices, the Florida Department of Children and Families, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcements, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Miami Police department, and the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office.
Here's a list of those charged, and their respective businesses:
- Karla Rodriguez Diaz, 28, and Luis Marzo Machado, 30 - Opa Locka Fruit and Produce
- Pedro Sanchez Barrero, 26, and Antonia Barrero, 48 - Pedro Produce
- Diocenila Castro, 49 - Castro Produce
- Matias Jose Ramirez, 37, and Jorge Saladrigas Milian, 56 - Ramirez Produce and Jorge Produce
- Reinaldo Arteaga, 62, and Luisdian Hernandez Gonzalez, 22 - Artega Produce
- Zulfiqar Mithavayani, 51, and Jamal Al-Hawa, 60 - ABC Food Market
- Maikel Manuel Riviaux, 42 - Pucho Fish Market
- Jose Antonio Gonzalez, 45, and Noraida Pi Figueroa, 40 - Los Corticos
- Rafael Gonzalez Cuellar, 54, and Luis Casola Rojas, 43 - Cuellar Produce
- Katia Nunez Landeiro, 35 - Katy's Produce
IdaysiLandeiro Reyes, 47, and Javier Gallardo Gonzalez, 47 - Landeiro Produce
- Nelson Chico, 59, and Luisdian H. Hernandez, 22 - Rey Produce
- Fernando Fernandez Garcia, 33 - Santa Cruz Shark
- Luis Casola Rojas, 43 - Casola Produce
- Angelo Socarras, 37 - Angelo Produce
The businesses ranged from Angelo's Produce's ($190,000) to Opa-Locka Fruit and Produce's ($2.4 million). Eight of the stores processed more than $1 million each in fraudulent transactions.
They now face charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, and food stamp/ETB fraud. The first two charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years. The latter carries a maximum sentence of five years behind bars.
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The market claims it receives more than 100,000 customers every week.
Oh, and in case you had this in your head now: