Should grocer get his money back? Store is accused of food stamp fraud

News-DemocratMay 16, 2014 

A grocery store in Venice is asking a federal judge to allow the store to once again accept food stamps after a federal investigator halted the program in the belief that store employees were trafficking the federal benefits.

The owner of the Venice Food Mart, Abdelraman Naser of Millstadt, filed an appeal Monday asking a federal court to overturn a decision from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to halt the store's participation in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The program is commonly known for distributing food stamps that can be used by low-income residents to purchase food.

Store owners deny the store purchased the food stamps and claim they can demonstrate "flaws" in the federal oversight of the program. They also claimed the disqualification has been a hardship to the store and neighborhood, and provided a letter of support from the mayor of Venice to federal investigators, according to court documents.

The store, located at 420 Broadway in Venice, is part of a gas station in the impoverished community of 1,900 residents. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 40 percent of households in Venice participate in the federal food stamp program and 42 percent of all residents live below the federal level for poverty.

The Department of Agriculture permanently disqualified the store from participating in the program on April 10 following an administrative review of the store.

The decision was based on a review of electronic data collected by the government, according to a report from Rich Proulx with the Department of Agriculture.

The data showed patterns indicative of trafficking, which is the buying or selling of food stamps in exchange for cash or ineligible food. The patterns included:

* consecutive transactions made too rapidly to be credible,

* multiple transactions made from the same accounts in an unusually short time frame,

* transactions depleting the majority or all of a recipient's monthly benefits, made in unusually short time frames, and

* excessively large transactions.

Proulx concluded in his report that the store's stock did not appear substantial enough to support customers consistently making large transactions, such as one for about $543.

"The real question is why customers would want to buy anything from (the) store in the first place, a convenience store that has limited food variety or quantity and little to no fresh fruit and vegetables," Proulx states in the report. "The food stock and facilities of (Venice Food Mart) do not appear to be set up to provide for all of one's food needs. It carries smaller-sized and higher-priced items than larger stores, mostly snacks and beverages."

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at or 618-239-2501.

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