Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Niagara County Sheriff Jim Voutour says it was citizen outrage that sparked his office to launch an undercover probe of welfare fraud at Niagara Falls food stores.
“You know, we’d get the complaints from people who’d be in these stores and they’d call us and say, ‘You can’t believe what these people are buying (with food stamps),’” Voutour said.
Or in some cases, what they were not buying.
“We looked at some of these stores and at the amount they were processing in food stamps,” Voutour said. “We had stores that were processing enormous amounts of food stamps, but they didn’t have the inventory of (food stuffs) to support (the food stamp redemptions).”
On Monday, Voutour and Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante dropped the hammer and arrested the owners of two Falls mini-marts, charging them with a raft of fraud related crimes.
The charges followed a four-month, undercover investigation. Investigators from the Sheriff’s Office posing as food stamp recipients were able to make a series of fraudulent transactions at both the Indian General Store, 1611 Pine Ave., and Merry Mart, 336 19th St., between September and January.
Voutour said it was shocking how easily the fraud took place.
“It took (the undercover investigators) some time and some rapport,” Voutour said, “and they made some normal purchases. But then they were able to move into the illegal stuff pretty easily.”
Charged and arraigned in Falls City Court on Monday were Jasbir Kaur and Shamsher Singh, the owners of Indian General Store.
Kaur, 52, was charged with second-degree grand larceny, misuse of food stamps, first-degree falsifying business records, first-degree tampering with public records, third-degree welfare fraud and three counts of first-degree offering a false instrument.
Singh, 59, was charged with second-degree grand larceny, misuse of food stamps, first-degree falsifying business records, first-degree tampering with public records, third-degree welfare fraud and first-degree offering a false instrument.
Investigators said during the course of the food stamp investigation they also linked Kaur and Singh to a Medicaid fraud scheme and charged them with that as well.
Also charged and arraigned on Monday was Merry Mart owner Wael Rizek. Rizek, 42, was charged with third-degree grand larceny, misuse of food stamps, six counts of first-degree falsifying business records and six counts of first-degree tampering with public records.
City Court Judge Angelo Morinello set bail for all three men at $5,000 cash or $10,000 property.
Voutour said that during the course of the investigation more than $180,000 was confiscated. The sheriff said he is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to seize the funds and return them to the taxpayers of Niagara County.
“This took a lot of time and a lot of effort, but the result was pretty good,” Voutour said.
As part of the investigation, 38 Niagara County food stamp clients, who were committing unauthorized purchases with food stamp funds and/or selling their food stamps for cash, were identified and interviewed. In return for their cooperation, the individuals were not criminally charged, but they did agree to settlements that discontinue their food stamp eligibility for one year.
The savings to Niagara County taxpayers as a result of those deals is estimated at over $100,000.
Voutour said the probe is ongoing, with additional retail locations and food stamp clients being investigated.
“This investigation was absolutely meant to send a message that (food stamp) fraud will not be tolerated,” Voutour said.
The sheriff’s office was assisted in the investigation by the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office, the Niagara County Department of Social Services, the United States Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General and the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.