Waterbury Grocery Store Worker Pleads Guilty to Defrauding Federal Food Stamp Program
John H. Durham, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, today announced that, on June 14, 2019, MUHAMMAD SHAHBAZ, 50, of Jersey City, New Jersey, pleaded guilty in Hartford federal court to food stamp fraud.
The federal Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (“SNAP”) is administered by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and utilizes federal tax dollars to subsidize low-income households to provide them with the opportunity to achieve a more nutritious diet by increasing their food-purchasing power. SNAP recipients purchase eligible food items at retail food stores through the use of an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, and SNAP benefits may be accepted by authorized retailers only in exchange for eligible items. Items such as alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, paper goods and soaps are not eligible for purchase with Food Stamp benefits, and it is a violation of the rules and regulations governing the food stamp program to allow benefits to be used to purchase ineligible items. SNAP benefits may not lawfully be exchanged for cash under any circumstances. The program is designed so that the total amount of each purchase is electronically transferred to the retailer’s designated bank account.
According to court documents and statements made in court, Shahbaz worked at WB Trade Fair Grocery, located at 43 Willow Street in Waterbury. Shahbaz was related to the store owner and often worked shifts later in the day. In 2015 and 2016, Shahbaz and others illegally allowed customers to redeem their food stamp benefits for cash and other ineligible items, including cigarettes, a tall glass bong and other items. Shahbaz charged the customers’ food stamp cards approximately double the value for these illegal transactions.
Given the stock of eligible food items at the store, the number of registers and the customer amenities, it is estimated that WB Trade Fair Grocery could lawfully redeem, at most, between $120,000 to $240,000 per year in food stamp benefits. However, during an approximately 18-month period in 2015 and 2016, food stamp redemptions at the store totaled approximately $3.2 million.
Shahbaz is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant on October 2, 2019, at which time he faces a maximum term of imprisonment of five years.
Raul Carlos Monarca-Gonzalez, Tallat Mahmood and Tahir Shahzad, who all who worked at WB Trade Fair Grocery, previously pleaded guilty to food stamp fraud. Monarca-Gonzalez and Mahmood were each sentenced to 30 months of imprisonment, and Shahzad awaits sentencing.
This matter has been investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General, and is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Anastasia King and Neeraj Patel.