Seven Rock Hill women who received food stamps pleaded guilty Thursday to more than $20,000 in food stamp fraud at a Rock Hill store. Three of the store owners now face up to five years in prison for a $5 million food stamp trafficking scheme.
All who pleaded guilty Thursday in state court in York have to pay the money back to avoid jail time and probation.
The seven who pleaded guilty Thursday are: Kimberly Johnson, 28, $2,195 in fraud; Victoria Sanders, 25, $2,234; Dequitta White, 31, $3,070; Jatonica Williams, 31, $5,238; Brooke Rogers, 27, $2,134; Shenisa Davis, 36, $2,549; and Labrecia White, 24, $2,962.
Johnson pleaded guilty by herself. The other six pled in two groups of three.
The women avoided years in prison on felony food stamp fraud charges by pleading guilty to misdemeanor fraud charges and accepting the requirement to pay the money back. Each defendant received a 30-day sentence in jail that was suspended, and two years probation that will be dismissed if all the money is repaid by Dec. 31.
Now the store owners face prison and potentially paying back as much as $5 million, said Mark McKinnon, 16th Circuit assistant public defender who represented three of the women who pleaded guilty Thursday.
The guilty pleas are the latest action in the state and federal crackdown on a scam involving cash payoffs for purchases of cigarettes, gas and beer. The scam was uncovered last year at the Daily Express mart in Rock Hill. The owners of the store, Li Fang Phu, Hoang Nguyen and Dianne Phu, all of Rock Hill, pleaded guilty in federal court last year to a scheme prosecutors said had been going on for years.
Food stamps can be used only for the purchase of nonprepared food, no cash should be returned to the holder, said S.C. Assistant Attorney General Sam Jones.
The store owners potentially will get reduced sentences for their agreement to testify against the food stamp recipients who received illegal cash and goods. However, those three store owners were not in court Thursday in York and will not be sentenced in federal court until their work as cooperating witnesses is finished.
The food stamp scam among the store owners and dozens of store customers went on from March 2014 to 2016, Jones said in court Thursday. Jones, who prosecutes food stamp cases statewide, said the store owners were “trafficking” food stamps and exchanging benefits for cash, while the food stamp recipients caught by investigators repeatedly used food stamps for illegal purchases and cash back. The scheme involved buying hot food, a single beer, cigarettes, or gasoline with a food stamps debit card and getting cash back.
“Through a pattern of excessive transactions,” investigators found the incidents of up to $100 each time where people received illegal goods, money, or both, Jones said.
Food stamps is the commonly used name for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aimed at helping the poor get enough to eat.