Three people, including two Meriden men, are facing fraud charges after federal authorities said they partook in a scheme of exchanging food stamp benefits for cash at two city stores.
Carlos Dominguez, 56, and Serafettin Buyuksoy, 56, both from Meriden, were arrested Thursday along with Myrachid Elquafai, 50, of New Haven, on charges of defrauding the federal Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past two years.
According to a press release from the U.S. Justice Department, Dominguez is the owner of CJ Express and Grocery, 145 West Main St., where Elquafai works, while Buyuksoy is an employee of J’s Corner Store at 160 West Main St.
On multiple occasions from 2010 to 2012, the three men violated the SNAP program when they dispensed cash in exchange for funds from customers' Electronics Benefit Transaction card (EBT), officials said. EBT cards are issued by the federal government to low income citizens who are eligible for the food stamp program. The cards, which are funded by taxpayer dollars, are meant to be used for items like food and groceries.
It's illegal to use the EBT card for the purchase items like alcohol, cigarettes, paper goods, as well as making cash exchanges, officials said.
Affidavits from the case spell out how undercover FBI agents would go into the stores and engage in conversation with one of the three men while they worked. The agents would then request a cash transaction in exchange for credit from the EBT card, and every time the suspects agreed to the transaction they would apply a higher amount on the EBT card.
In once instance back in August of 2010, Myrachid dispensed roughly $60 to one of the undercover agents in cash in return for $109.83 in food stamp benefits. Eligible and ineligible items were also purchase, officials said.
According to the affidavits, J's store redeemed approximately $430,000 in SNAP funds alone from February 2011 to July 2012, while CJ's store redeemed over $1.4 million in SNAP benefits from February 2010 to July 2012.
All three men face up to 20 years in prison as well as fines of up to $250,000 apiece, if convicted, officials said. They remain incarcerated after appearing in federal court in New Haven on Friday.
Here's the full press release:
David B. Fein, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, today announced that three individuals affiliated with two Meriden food stores have been charged with defrauding the federal Food Stamp Program.
CARLOS DOMINGUEZ, 56, of Meriden, MYRACHID ELQUAFAI, 50, of New Haven, and SERAFETTIN BUYUKSOY, 56, of Meriden, were arrested yesterday on federal criminal complaints. Following their arrests, they appeared before United States Magistrate Judge Holly B. Fitzsimmons in Bridgeport and are currently detained. DOMINGUEZ owns CJ EXPRESS AND GROCERY, LLC, located at 145 West Main Street in Meriden, and ELQUAFAI is an employee of the store. BUYUKSOY is an employee of J’S CORNER STORE, located at 160 West Main Street in Meriden.
The federal Food Stamp Program, which is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (“SNAP”), is administered by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and utilizes federal tax dollars to subsidize low-income households to provide them with the opportunity to achieve a more nutritious diet by increasing their food-purchasing power. SNAP recipients purchase eligible food items at retail food stores through the use of an EBT card, which is similar to an ATM card. SNAP benefits may be accepted by authorized retailers only in exchange for eligible items. Items such as alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, paper goods and soaps are not eligible for purchase with Food Stamp benefits, and it is a violation of the rules and regulations governing the food stamp program to allow benefits to be used to purchase ineligible items. SNAP benefits may not lawfully be exchanged for cash under any circumstances. The program is designed so that the total amount of each purchase is electronically transferred to the retailer’s designated bank account.
It is alleged that DOMINGUEZ, ELQUAFAI, and BUYUKSOY illegally redeemed SNAP benefits at their stores in exchange for cash, typically at a discounted rate of approximately 50 to 70 percent of the full value of the benefits. Since 2010, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal SNAP benefits were redeemed at the two stores.
If convicted of the charge of food stamp fraud, each defendant faces a maximum term of imprisonment of 20 years, a fine of up to $250,000, and full restitution to the government.
U.S. Attorney Fein stressed that a complaint is only a charge and is not evidence of guilt. Charges are only allegations, and each defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This matter is being investigated by the United States Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General and the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney, with the assistance of the State of Connecticut’s Department of Social Services. These cases are being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Felice M Duffy.