Sarasota store owner pleads guilty in food stamp fraud scheme

June 12, 2013 

TAMPA -- A Sarasota store owner has pleaded guilty to stealing from the federal government of more than $735,000 in a food stamp fraud scheme, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

According to a plea agreement, Carlos Chaves, owner of a convenience store now known as Las Americas Latin Market, 560 N. Washington Blvd., between February 2010 and March 2012 conducted numerous illegal "cash-back" transactions with recipients in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.

"For example, if a SNAP recipient requested $50 cash back, Chavez would generally charge $100 to the recipient’s EBT card," the release states. "When the $100 purchase was authorized, he would give the SNAP recipient $50 in cash and, within 48 hours, Las Americas would receive a $100 redemption from the Department of Agriculture. This illegal activity resulted in a loss of $735,886.00 in SNAP benefits to the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

Law enforcement officials began investigating Chavez in February 2011 after they noticed suspicious transactions at Las Americas. Notably, they noticed that Las Americas' SNAP redemptions far exceeded those of similar convenience stores and even medium-sized grocery stores in the area, according to prosecutors.

"After law enforcement executed a search warrant at Las Americas, SNAP redemptions at the store fell precipitously," the release states.

Prosecutors said Chavez faces up to 10 years in federal prison when he is sentenced.

The case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Internal Revenue Service and the Sarasota Police Department.

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