Eight suspects in Manatee food stamp fraud sting still at large

MANATEE -- Eight suspects remained at-large Wednesday in a massive food stamp fraud sting that resulted in 45 arrests.

"They just haven't been located yet," said Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Department. "But they're in the system now and it's just a matter of time."

Operation Meal Ticket was a four-month investigation into the fraudulent use of Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT cards, which is part of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

In the sting operation, an undercover detective with the sheriff's department sold the cards to unauthorized users, including individuals and owners or employees of area grocery or convenience stores at 50 percent of the cash value.

In some cases, the cards were traded outright for drugs.

The sting was in coordination with the Bradenton Police Department, the Florida Department of Financial Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Investigators did not want to identify the businesses where the transactions occurred, Bristow said, until the operation was complete, but they were located in Bradenton and Manatee County.

One of the businesses that handled one of the largest amount of cash in transactions during the sting was in the city, said Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski.

Radzilowski said during the operation, his investigators helped identify businesses that may be involved, and only one was located in the city limits.

"The sheriff's department did a great job," he said. "The undercover officer had to build a rapport with the suspects."

He said all the credit goes to the deputies and officers of the departments who were on the streets.

Bristow said the idea of the operation started when a member of the Special Investigations Unit got information that such transactions were going on around the county and said he would like to develop a sting.

"Say you applied for assistance," he said in explaining how the operation worked, "you would get this card, like a bank debit card, and a PIN (personal identification number).

"If you decide you'd rather have Jack Daniels and hear

that a certain food store will give you cash for your card," Bristow said, "you would go there and get maybe 50 cents on the dollar."

He said the store owner would then go to a wholesale buying club and buy supplies for his business.

Bristow said sometimes the undercover agent would make direct deals for drugs instead of cash.

Some of the drugs the undercover agent made trades for included oxycodone, cocaine and marijuana.

"We arrested 45, but who knows how many more people are out there doing this," Bristow said. "We just hope this slows it down some."

He said the operation will continue and that deputies will be going after the people selling their EBT cards, not just the buyers.