SC attorney general going after fraud in food stamp program

Attorney General Wilson says some recipients of the state’s food stamp program are improperly using the benefits cards like ATM cards, giving them to vendors in return for cash payouts instead of using them to buy approved food items.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With help from federal officials, South Carolina’s top prosecutor has set up a specialized unit in a pilot project to go after people accused of abusing the state’s food stamp program.

At the beginning of this year, Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office began dedicating a prosecutor solely to prosecuting fraud within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Wilson said some recipients of the federally funded benefits are improperly using the benefits cards like ATM cards, giving them to vendors in return for cash payouts instead of using them to buy approved food items.

“People are redeeming these cards and using the money to purchase anything,” the Republican prosecutor said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “It could go to strip club, a liquor store, buying a Gucci bag — something it was never intended for.”

As of December, more than 385,000 South Carolina households were participating in the SNAP program, which is administered by the agency with funds provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They include 24,143 households in Charleston County, 12,416 in Berkeley County and 8,666 in Dorchester County. Richland County has the most households receiving food stamps at 31,321 followed by Greenville County at 29,252, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Through the third quarter of the fiscal year in 2014, the USDA had imposed sanctions, through fines or temporary disqualifications, on more than 500 stores nationwide and permanently disqualified more than 1,000 stores for illegally exchanging SNAP benefits, according to DSS.

The pilot project in South Carolina is supported by a $318,840 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Attorney General’s office says it have two cases already pending General Sessions court, six cases under review to determine if they will be prosecuted and several dozen more under investigation by DSS officials.

“I’m trying to move them as quickly as possible,” said Assistant Attorney General Nicole Wetherton. “I feel the cases that I have right now are pretty good.”

The AG’s office declined to say in which counties the cases are happening.

Wilson said he got the idea for the specialized prosecution unit after taking a look at his office’s efforts to go after people defrauding the Medicaid system. The same USDA program that’s underwriting South Carolina’s effort is helping develop similar programs in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas.

“Anytime you have a lot of government money going to a program to assist poor people or at-risk people, there’s always going to be folks who see a deep pool of money, seemingly unlimited income, and they’re going to try to abuse it,” Wilson recently told The Associated Press. “We’re going after people who are defrauding the government out of money that should be going to money who truly need it to survive.”

Prentiss Findlay of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.