Owner Of Las Americas Latin Market Pleads Guilty To Food Stamp Fraud
Tampa, Florida - United States Attorney Robert E. O'Neill announces that Carlos Chavez (46, Sarasota) pleaded guilty yesterday to theft of government funds in relation to a food stamp fraud scheme perpetrated at his convenience store, Las Americas Latin Market. Chavez faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison.
According to the plea agreement, Chavez has been the partial owner and operator of “More 4 Less Grocery Store Inc.,” a convenience store located at 560 N. Washington Boulevard in Sarasota. Over the years, this convenience store has done business as “More 4 Less Grocery Store” and, most recently, as “Las Americas Latin Market.”
Since August 2009, Las Americas has participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. SNAP was established by the United States Government to alleviate hunger and malnutrition among low and middle income families by increasing their food-purchasing power and ability. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for administering SNAP. Regulations mandate that retail businesses are prohibited from purchasing SNAP benefits in exchange for cash, a practice commonly known as “cash-back.”
Between February 1, 2010, and March 1, 2012, Chavez conducted numerous illegal “cash-back” transactions with SNAP recipients at Las Americas. Chavez collected a substantial fee for providing this cash-back service to SNAP recipients—typically 25% to 50% of the overall SNAP transaction. For example, if a SNAP recipient requested $50 cash back, Chavez would generally charge $100 to the recipient’s EBT card. When the $100 purchase was authorized, he would give the SNAP recipient $50 in cash and, within 48 hours, Las Americas would receive a $100 redemption from the Department of Agriculture. This illegal activity resulted in a loss of $735,886.00 in SNAP benefits to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In February 2011, law enforcement officials noticed that there were numerous suspicious SNAP transactions at Las Americas. For instance, Las Americas’ SNAP redemptions far exceeded those of similar convenience stores and even medium-size grocery stores in the immediate area. Also, between February 1, 2010, and March 1, 2012, Las Americas’ SNAP redemptions far exceeded state and national averages by 1,300%. After law enforcement executed a search warrant at Las Americas, SNAP redemptions at the store fell precipitously.
This case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, and the Sarasota Police Department. It is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Simon Gaugush.