Macon and Byron residents are among the 54 people indicted in what authorities called one of the largest food program frauds ever uncovered.
The indictment, unsealed Tuesday in Savannah, involves the purchase of more than $18 million in vouchers and food stamp benefits for cash through a number of purported grocery stores set up across Georgia, according to a statement from the U.S. attorneys office in Savannah.
Besides the 54-defendant indictment, 34 other defendants were charged separately for allegedly selling their Women, Infant and Children vouchers and food stamp benefits for cash.
This prosecution is one of the largest federal food program frauds ever brought, U.S. Attorney Edward J. Tarver said in the statement. The government alleges that the defendants stole taxpayer-funded benefits intended to feed the most needy families and children in our communities.
The indictment alleges that many of the defendants conspired to open purported grocery stores in Savannah, Macon, Atlanta, Garden City, Lithonia, LaGrange, Stone Mountain, Riverdale and elsewhere to buy WIC and food stamp benefits for cash. Once the purported stores were opened and approved as WIC and food stamp vendors, many of the defendants allegedly canvassed low-income neighborhoods and solicited WIC and food stamp participants to illegally exchange their benefits for cash, not for food.
The defendants then allegedly bought WIC and food stamp benefits for cash at a fraction of the amount they received from the Department of Agriculture by redeeming the benefits they had purchased. The defendants also allegedly conspired to launder more than $18 million in proceeds received from their actions, the statement said.
Most of the 54 defendants are from the Savannah and Atlanta area. Four, however, are from Macon, according to the release: Maurice Reese Fudge, 39; Quinton Q Matthews, 39; Porsha Parsha Drewery, 37; and Taquilla Quilla Johnson, 35. One is from Byron: Ronnie City Zachary, 29.
The WIC program provides infant formula, juice, eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income pregnant and postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age 5 who are at risk nutritionally. Participants in the WIC program receive three-month supplies of WIC vouchers, which they can exchange at authorized stores for the healthy foods listed on the vouchers.
The food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides benefits to low-income families through electronic benefit transfer cards, which are similar to debit cards. It is a crime to exchange WIC or food stamp benefits for cash.
Each of the 54 defendants listed in the larger indictment have been charged with one count of mail and wire fraud conspiracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, and one count of money laundering conspiracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000.
Prosecutors also are seeking the forfeiture of $20 million and various bank accounts and assets.