News and Press Releases

United States Attorney Jenny A. Durkan
Western District of Washington

Seattle Woman Sentenced To 21 Months In Prison For Food Stamp Fraud

Owned International District Store Linked to $1.6 Million in Fraudulent Transactions

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December12, 2011

            ELSA MA KWONG, 46, of Seattle, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 21 months in prison, three years of supervised release and $1,490,255 in restitution for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) fraud, announced U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan.  KWONG is the owner of Seattle Chinese Herb & Groceryat 1203 S. Jackson Street.  The store was a hub for food stamp fraud until it was raided by federal investigators in October 2010.  Calling it a “serious crime,” U.S. District Judge James L. Robart said, “as the operator of a terminal it is the defendant who had the opportunity to control this, but made the decision not to.”
           
            “At a time when federal programs such as food stamps are stretched thin meeting real needs, this type of fraud rips the fabric of our safety net,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan.  “We will continue to prosecute these cases of food stamp trafficking to preserve the benefits for those who truly need them.”

            According to records filed in the case, in late 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG) began investigating SNAP benefit trafficking in Seattle’s International District.  In 2009, the Seattle Police Department joined the investigation.  Using undercover officers and video surveillance, law enforcement documented SNAP benefit trafficking at a variety of locations.  Runners would approach those who had received their monthly SNAP benefit card – similar to a debit card.  The debit card would be run at one of the grocery stores for a set amount, for example $200.  The recipient would get half the value in cash – in this example, $100, leaving $100 in profit to be split among the co-schemers. 

            In court today, prosecutors said KWONG’s store was “ a shell vehicle for carrying out fraudulent transaction after fraudulent transaction… This is not a case of one moment, one bad decision.  The fraud occurred day after day, hour after hour as customers came into the store.”

            KWONG is forfeiting two vehicles and $169,383 that was seized from her bank account the day of the raid.

            Two other defendants have already been sentenced.  Both were “runners” bringing in electronic benefit cards for cash.  Cuc Thi-Kim Pham was sentenced to 18 months in prison and Anh Nguyen was sentenced to 34 months in prison.  

            The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG) and the Seattle Police Department.  The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Thomas Woods.

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