MANATEE -- Authorities arrested 41 suspects Wednesday on welfare fraud charges as a result of an undercover sting, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
The arrests came out of 103 warrants issued as a result of Operation Meal Ticket II, the sheriff announced at a press conference.
"We are sending a message that there is major fraud here and we need to do something about it," Sheriff Brad Steube said.
Among those arrested was one local restaurant owner who police say bought Electronic Benefits Transfer cards he would use to buy restaurant supplies.
Investigators also went undercover to buy EBT cards from 55 people.
Steube has already spoken with Jeff Atwater, chief financial officer of Florida, on pursuing charges involving EBT fraud.
"Our collaborative work across state, local and federal agencies is key to aggressively pursuing those who commit public assistance fraud and making sure they end up behind bars," Atwater said in a news release, "Those efforts keep dollars from those who cheat the system and help protect those who need it most."
Steube also reached out to Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, to discuss the problem next week.
"We are going to see about what we can do to make it harder in the state of Florida and possibly the whole United States," Steube said.
Steube has ideas for addressing the problem.
"Maybe it's a law that needs to be changed, or a chip or photo needs to be put on it," Steube said. "We thought this was important. It is taxpayer's money."
No law requires retailers to verify the identity of the individual named on an EBT card. Cardholders simply swipe it like a debit card and enter a personal information number.
Steube said it makes him angry for this crime to run rampant as he is struggling to get needed county funding to run his agency.
The Sheriff's Office began the EBT investigation in April 2012 with the assistance of the Florida Department of Financial Services.
This year's undercover operation took place in two parts.
The first part focused on Gerald Millas, owner of three restaurants, including Pizza Pros near the corner of 57th Avenue and U.S. 41, on the basis of information received at the end of last year's operation.
"During that investigation we learned about a restaurant owner in Manatee County that was somehow involved," Steube said. "This individual was going out and soliciting those folks for their EBT cards."
Detectives say Millas bought EBT cards for 50 cents on the dollar and used them to buy merchandise at Dollar General on 14th Street West and at the Sam's Club on 53rd Ave East in Bradenton.
A subpoena sent to Sam's Club included a request for all sales records, including method of payment, for Millas' personal and business membership.
"He used 53 different EBT cards at Sam's Club," Steube said.
Detectives say records show EBT cards were used 131 times by Millas during a 20-month period from Jan. 1, 2010, to Sept. 28, 2012. Merchandise bought with the cards totaled more than $23,000.
Millas' arrest warrant indicate he would often have the individual he bought the card from accompany him to Sam's Club while he shopped, have them swipe the card for payment and then pay them half the total bill in cash afterward.
Millas was arrested Dec. 12, 2012, and charged with a third-degree felony and a misdemeanor for social welfare fraud. He has pleaded not guilty and will go before a judge and jury at 9 a.m. Aug. 26.
Sgt. Jason Powell, Intelligence Unit supervisor, said Millas was not needed to issue warrants for the 48 suspects who allegedly sold him cards.
"We are not using him as a cooperating witness," Powell said.
In the second part of the operation, detectives went undercover to buy EBT cards for 50 cents to 60 cents on the dollar.
The typical transaction was $120 for a $200 EBT card. EBT cards purchased by MSO totaled nearly $9,000, which it could not redeem or return. So MSO used the cards to buy baby formula for the Food Bank of Manatee County.
"The only way we felt comfortable doing this was spending it and donating it to the food bank," Steube said.
Powell said the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 1 percent of individuals receiving food stamps commit fraud. He disagrees.
"I would estimate it to be 60 percent to 70 percent, but it is definitely not 1 percent," Powell said.
Jessica De Leon, Law Enforcement Reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her in Twitter @JDeLeon1012.