The owner of a West Baltimore corner grocery store has been charged with funneling more than $400,000 in food stamp benefits into his personal bank account in what federal authorities say is one of Maryland's biggest cases of food stamp fraud.
James E. Bryant Jr., 37, also employed as a $21,528-a-year solid-waste worker with the Baltimore school system, is charged in a federal indictment with unauthorized use of food stamps between August 1994 and February 1996.
Prosecutors said a trial for Bryant, who pleaded not guilty last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, is scheduled for July 8.
Investigators became suspicious of Bryant's store, McKean and Westwood Grocery in the 1700 block of McKean Ave., when he redeemed $822,350 in food stamp benefits over 18 months even though the store's food sales total about $21,800 in food annually, the affidavit said.
Between October 1994 and September 1995, Bryant withdrew $407,130 from his NationsBank account, the affidavit said. The money has not been recovered, according to investigators.
At one point in its investigation, the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up video surveillance of the store and "recorded a continuous picture of traffic in and out of the grocery on twelve peak days. The tapes showed little evidence of food sales, other than an occasional bottle of soda or small bag of groceries," the affidavit said.
During those 12 days, the grocery store redeemed $126,631 in food stamp transactions, investigators said.
The affidavit said store workers paid corrupt food stamp holders about 50 cents for every dollar's worth of stamps. The store kept the other 50 cents on every dollar, and Bryant depositing the bulk of it in his personal account, the affidavit said.
Food stamp recipients used their electronic "Independence" cards to make the transactions. Federal law prohibits selling or exchanging food stamp benefits for cash.
Bryant's attorney, Leslie Stein, refused to comment on the case yesterday.
Susan C. Acker, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the $24 billion food stamp program, said illegal sales of food stamps for cash accounted for $815 million worth of food stamp fraud in 1993. Figures for later years weren't available.
About 208,000 stores are authorized to accept food stamps from the 27 million Americans who get help from the program. Federal officials say the bulk of the stores involved in corrupt activity are smaller outlets.
Officials said the increasing use of electronic transfer cards has helped them identify food stamp traffickers, since the transactions are recorded in detail.
"It gives us an audit trail. We're hoping it'll go a long way toward solving this problem," Acker said.
The latest case is one of the largest in recent years in Maryland but is relatively small compared with some in other states. In 1992, a New York grocer perpetrated an $82 million food stamp fraud.