Just before 11 a.m., the Glendale Police SWAT team rushed through the front doors of the African Caribbean Market, on 43rd Avenue near Bethany Home Road.
Their targets: The owners of the business, a husband and wife now accused of running a multimillion-dollar fraudulent food stamp operation, the largest in Arizona history.
Bernard and Monica Le-Uh face the possibility of hundreds, if not thousands, of felony charges, stemming from alleged involvement in a scheme that turned food stamp debit cards that were supposed to be used for food items into cold, hard cash that the pair allegedly split with cardholders.
"Dozens upon dozens of transactions that occurred where there were no goods exchanged between the two parties," said Marcus Hambrick, who is the inspector general of the Arizona Department of Economic Security. It is the state agency that oversees the food stamp program.
Hambrick said during January alone, the Caribbean Market processed 553 food stamp transactions totaling $69,000.
The trouble is, only one aisle of the small store and one small cooler held food items. The rest of the store contained wigs, purses and DVDs, among other non-food items.
According to investigators, it would be nearly impossible to sell enough food out of this setup to account for such a high sales figure.
"That's a sizeable number," said Hambrick.
But the case did not come together overnight.
DES was alerted to a possible problem with a card used at the store three years ago. Since that time, investigators have crunched data, set up surveillance and finally, used undercover officers to make bogus food stamp purchases.
According to multiple sources familiar with these so-called "cash back" schemes, the stores that run them do not accept business from new or unfamiliar faces. It can take personal connections and months of work for an undercover officer or informant to gain the trust of the shopkeepers.
The USDA, which administers the food stamp program federally, estimates that one in 10 stores that accept food stamps cheat the system.
That statistic helped to persuade the then, newly hired DES director, Clarence Carter, to focus on businesses, rather than just the food stamp recipients three years ago.
"Most of the individuals who desperately need this program in order to sustain do what they're supposed to do in the context of this program," Carter said.
Carter said the goal of business prosecutions is to recover the largest amount of money possible and to dissuade other businesses from breaking the rules and, in essence, robbing the community of a needed safety net.
"The taxpayer is robbed of their intention to help, and the family that needs the benefit is robbed of the resource that they need in order to sustain themselves," Carter said.
During the last quarter of last year, DES and the Attorney General's Office prosecuted 19 people in connection to the business side of food stamp fraud.
In the case of the Caribbean Market, investigators identified 33 food stamp cardholders who might also face prosecution for using the cash back scheme to take cash from their cards.
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