News and Press Releases

United States Attorney Jenny A. Durkan
Western District of Washington

Food Stamp ‘Runner’ Sentenced To Prison For Repeated Fraud

Defendant Continued Trafficking Food Stamps After Law Enforcement Warning

November 18, 2011

            CUC THI-KIM PHAM, 57, of Seattle, Washington, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 18 months in prison, three years of supervised release, and $400,000 in restitution for food stamp fraud.  PHAM was a “runner” who would take the state-issued debit cards of food stamp recipients, run them through the cash register at a cooperating store, and give the card holder half of the value deducted in cash.  The remaining half of the funds was profit that was split between PHAM and her co-schemers.  U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour imposed the sentence.

            PHAM came to the attention of law enforcement during a 2010 investigation of food stamp trafficking in Seattle’s International District.  Law enforcement documented two stores and multiple runners who were committing food stamp fraud.  One of the store owners, Elsa Kwong of Seattle Chinese Herb and Grocery, was arrested in October 2010, and has since pleaded guilty.  In the months before Kwong’s arrest, PHAM acted as a runner for the store.  Records show that from June 2009 until October 2010, Kwong’s store redeemed more in food stamps than it sold in food.  In fact, it took in $1.6 million more in food stamp money than it sold in food.

  At the time of Kwong’s arrest, PHAM was mistakenly served with a grand jury subpoena.  When PHAM arrived at the courthouse, she was informed that she was a target of the criminal investigation and that law enforcement was looking into her activities.  Despite this warning, less than three months later, PHAM was captured on videotape by a local television station again working as a runner for another store engaging in food stamp fraud.  The store was located across the street from Seattle Chinese Herb and Grocery. 

In a written request for a prison sentence, prosecutors note that PHAM failed to quit her criminal ways even after a clear warning.  “The defendant repeatedly engaged in criminal conduct on a daily basis.  She had countless opportunities to stop, culminating in her witnessing the arrest of Elsa Kwong and the raid at Seattle Chinese Herb and Grocery.  Instead of stopping, the defendant simply moved her trafficking operations across the street, after being explicitly warned that her conduct was being criminally investigated,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo.

The case was 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 Attorneys Thomas Woods.


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