ASSOCIATED PRESS and NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Federal authorities and Seattle police have arrested three people and raided two grocery stores as part of what they describe as an undercover investigation into food stamp trafficking.
The U.S. attorney’s office said in a news release that the investigation focused on Seattle Chinese Herb & Grocery in the International District. The store allegedly hired “runners” to approach people who had just received their food stamp debit cards, ran the cards for a set amount, and then paid half that amount in cash to the recipients, who didn’t get any food.
When asked about the charges, an unidentified store employee at Seattle Chinese Herb & Grocery said her boss was not there and she didn’t know anything about the charges. When asked about the arrest of Elsa Ma Kwong, the store’s owner, the employee denied the arrest took place.
Prosecutors say the store claimed more than $2 million in food stamp redemptions from July 2009 to July 2010, the vast majority of them fraudulent.
“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the U.S. food stamp program) is a critical safety net for people who need to put food on the table,” U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan said in a statement. “We owe it to them and to taxpayers to stop this abuse. Those who corrupt the system for their own gain, we will hold accountable.”
Arrested were Kwong, 46, and two women, Ahn Thi Nguyen, 53, and Muoi Ly, 65, accused of being runners.
They faced initial court appearances Tuesday, Oct. 5, but have not entered pleas.
Fraudulent transactions allegedly also occurred at Hop Thanh Supermarket, according to documents.
Hop Thanh owner Mr. Che said, “We have not done anything wrong. What’s the crime? My attorney has already questioned the government. It’s just an investigation. There are no charges against us.”
“I complained about the government’s harassment of Asian Americans,” he added, explaining that a local news station aired an interview with a woman in front of his store, who talked about the food stamp trafficking, implicating his store. “We have nothing to do with the woman [who is allegedly facilitated the fraud]. We were there [in our store] the whole time and she was not there. But on TV, we saw the woman in front of our store. We were shocked. Someone put the woman there and framed us. We asked to see the report but the investigator would not let us see what he has written. It is hurting and affecting our business.”
Currently, Hop Thanh has signs posted in its store stating it no longer accepts food stamps.
According to KIRO-TV, “Food stamp fraud is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.” ♦
Assunta Ng contributed to this report.