Store owners are charged with fraud

2 accused of redeeming food stamps illegally

April 06, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The owners of two neighborhood food markets in Baltimore have been charged in separate actions with defrauding the federal government by illegally redeeming hundreds of thousands of dollars in food stamp benefits.

Yong Kim, who owned and operated Neighborhood Grocery in the 1900 block of Cecil Ave. in Northeast Baltimore, was charged last week by the U.S. attorney's office with illegally paying cash for $350,000 of food stamp benefits during a five-year period that ended in November.

Lottie A. Hodges, who owned and operated Mama's Mini Mart in the 1600 block of Patterson Park Ave. in East Baltimore, was charged in a two-count federal grand jury indictment with illegally paying cash for between $250,000 and $309,000 in food stamp benefits between March 1995 and April 1996.

Court papers outline essentially the same scheme. Store owners are accused of taking "Independence" cards issued to poor people to allow them to buy certain foods; paying the holders of the cards cash at a discounted value of their "purchase," about 50 cents on the dollar; and redeeming the full value of the benefits from the federal government.

In two instances noted in the Hodges indictment, cashiers at Mama's Mini Mart are accused of redeeming Independence card benefits of $102.64 and $101.06 for $50 in cash.

It is illegal under federal law to give cash for food stamp benefits. If convicted, Kim could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison while Hodges could get 20 years.

Prosecutors said that under federal sentencing guidelines, the key factor is the amount of money.

Efforts to reach Kim and Hodges yesterday were unsuccessful. Calls to the numbers listed for their businesses were answered by recordings saying the phones were disconnected and no longer in service.

Prosecutors said several similar cases are pending against other grocery store owners, adding that food stamp fraud preys upon those most in need.

"It's a real leech on the support system that's supposed to be in place," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning.

Pub Date: 4/06/99

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