Food stamp scam gets AG’s attention

Posted Dec. 19, 2010, at 10:17 p.m.

AUGUSTA — Attorney General Janet Mills says two Bangor men may face state criminal charges for using the electronic benefit cards issued by the state’s supplemental nutrition assistance program for buying bottled water that they then emptied outside of a Shaw’s Supermarket and turned in the empty bottles to collect the deposits on the bottles.

“The food stamp card is only worth about $200 a month,” Mills said in an interview.

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“These dudes must have spent every dollar on that one little escapade. Instead of reselling it, like a normal crook might do, they were dumping it and taking it in for the deposit.”

She said the incident was seen by a Bangor Police Department officer who took pictures of the two young men dumping the water bottles out in the parking lot of the supermarket. She said that as soon as the Bangor Police Department sends a formal report of the investigation, she likely will charge the two with a misdemeanor offense of theft by “misapplication of property” and is reviewing applicable federal law violations.

“This was also sent to DHHS for them to take action,” Mills said.

Barbara VanBurgel, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said the incident reported to Mills had been sent to her office. She said the state is limited in what it can do to the individuals because of federal rules.

“As long as they are using it on allowable products, from the federal law, they have not violated the use of the card,” she said. VanBurgel agreed that buying 600 bottles of water was not what she would consider an appropriate use, but it is allowed under the federal law.

“We can and we will bring these individuals in for counseling on how they should be using this benefit for food,” she said, “but we are limited by federal regulations in what we can do.”

VanBurgel said the state is not allowed to take away the benefit because it disagrees with how an individual is using the benefit. She said stores do have the right to limit the amount of an item a person may purchase, but not the state.

“That was done in a case a few years ago,” she said.

In that case, a person was using an EBT card to buy large containers of milk at a Hannaford grocery store, then dumped the milk on the ground in back of the store and redeemed the deposit on the containers. Those containers had a $3 deposit. The store then limited how many of the containers could be purchased.

Mills said it is “absurd” that what is considered a crime under state law is allowed under a federal program. She said Congress should change the laws so that the food benefit is used only for what it is intended to be used: helping the poor get the food they need.

“When you lie in order to get food stamps or other federal benefits by saying you need them to buy food and instead of buying food you then use them to buy water or some other legitimate product and pour it out, throw it out to get the deposits, that’s theft,” Mills said.

VanBurgel said Congress is considering changes that would allow states to block the use of SNAP benefits to pay deposits on bottles and other containers. She said the legislation has gone through several versions and in some it is banned, in others it is left up to state rulemaking, and in others paying deposits with the benefit card has been allowed.

“I am sure there will be more debate on this in Congress,” she said. “But until they change the law, we can only do what we are allowed to do.”

Mills said that while DHHS officials feel constrained, she does not. She said misusing the benefits is a violation of state law, and she will prosecute individuals found misusing the benefit.

“I am hoping that if these people are charged and convicted of theft, that that alone would disqualify them from doing such foolishness again,” she said.

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