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Operation Meal Ticket: Manatee County Sheriff's Office targets food stamp fraud

5:41 PM, May 1, 2013   |    comments
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Manatee County, Florida -- Food stamps are supposed to help families in need or someone unemployed, but Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube says some people are using this benefit as a "meal ticket" for drugs and alcohol.

Today, that "meal ticket" landed many in jail.

Manatee deputies arrested 40 Wednesday and have warrants out for dozens more in the undercover sting operation. 

"We are sending the message there is rampant fraud here," said Sheriff Brad Steube.

The arrests represent 103 warrants involving 123 charges. Steube says during the 4-month-long investigation called Meal Ticket II undercover detectives bought $9,000 worth of Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT cards for $5,400 -- paying 60 cents on the dollar.

"A couple of these people said I'm getting rock cocaine, drugs and alcohol probably," Steube said.

Gerald Millas, the owner of three Pizza Pros in Manatee and Sarasota counties, bought $23,000 in food for his restaurants using the cards 131 times, according to investigators. 

"He used 53 different EBT cards at Sam's Club," said Steube.

And then there's Stephen Boyd. Steube said he had EBT cards in three states -- Florida, Maryland and South Carolina. 

Steube contends the food stamp system is broken. "In my opinion, it's a huge federal problem."

Taxpayers think so too. 

Zyra Afanador has five kids and receives more than $400 in food stamps each month.

"It's important for me I buy food for my kids and mild," she said.

Denise Cruz said this abuse of federal assistance angers her. 

"I'm working hard to support me and my family. I can't get food stamps, but my tax dollars are going to their food stamps which they then sell for drugs."

Christopher Maestri recalled a man tried to sell him an EBT card he said was worth $100 for $80. 

"They are taking our tax dollars and squandering it. But desperate people do desperate things."

Sheriff Steube is working with state and federal leaders to help improve the system. He said he'd like to see a chip or photo ID on the EBT cards so merchants can verify the person the card belongs to or have a law requiring merchants to check ID.

The money in food stamps cards did not go to waste. The sheriff's office used $9,000 in food stamp money to buy baby formula for the local food bank of Manatee County.

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