MANATEE -- Manatee authorities have obtained arrest warrants for 103 people charged with welfare fraud, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
Among those charged is the owner of three pizza restaurants who investigators say illegally bought Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT cards, on the street for 50 or 60 cents on the dollar. He then used the cards to buy supplies for his restaurants, according to the sheriff's office.
Investigators also went undercover to buy EBT cards from a total of 55 people, who sometimes used the proceeds to buy drugs and/or alcohol, according to the sheriff's office.
"We are sending a message that there is major fraud here and we need to do something about it," Sheriff Brad Steube said during an afternoon news conference, as he announced the arrests.
"We thought this was important. It is taxpayers' money," Steube said.
The sheriff's office in April 2012 began working with the Florida Department of Financial Services to target fraudulent use of Electronic Benefits Transfer Cards.
"The undercover operation resulted in arrest warrants for 103 subjects with 123 total charges," a news release states.
They face charges felony and misdemeanor social welfare fraud. If the fraud is for more than $200, it is a felony.
So far as part of "Operation Meal Ticket II," 39 people have been arrested and booked into the Manatee County jail, according to the release.
During the first Operation Meal Ticket in the spring of 2012, arrest warrants were obtained for 53 people.
The release offers some details about the latest undercover investigation:
"The operation was conducted in two parts. Part one involved the investigation and subsequent arrest of Gerald Millas on December 12, 2012, for felony social welfare fraud. During the investigation, detectives learned that Millas was buying EBT cards from various subjects in the area for 50 to 60 cents on the dollar. He would then use the cards to purchase food for his three pizza restaurants in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Detectives have arrest warrants for 48 subjects who sold their EBT cards to Millas.
"Part two of the investigation began in January 10, 2013, and involved undercover detectives purchasing EBT cards for 50 to 60 cents on the dollar. The normal purchase would be a $200 card for $120. It’s believed the subjects selling the cards would use the cash to purchase drugs and/or alcohol. Detectives obtained arrest warrants for 55 subjects.
"During the operation, the Sheriff’s Office purchased EBT cards totaling nearly $9,000. Since the cards could not be turned in, they were used to purchase baby formula which was given to the Food Bank of Manatee County."