There's not a lot of what Michael Pollan would call "food" at South Dallas' KSO Dollar Mart. Plenty of beer, wine and hair care products, according to the signs out front, but not much by way of whole grains or fresh produce.
The store nevertheless did a thriving business in the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Nothing wrong there, per se. SNAP is famously lenient on what recipients can buy ("Soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream are food items and are therefore eligible items"), and what stores are allowed to participate (they must offer only "three varieties of qualifying foods" from each staple food category: meat/poultry/fish; bread/cereal; milk/dairy; fruits/vegetables).
The problem, the feds say, is that KSO Dollar Mart isn't accepting food stamps so much as buying them, for $.50 on the dollar.
Store owner Kamardeen Ogunleye, 52, of Arlington, and manager Robert Gordon, 31, of Balch Springs, did this for more than three years and defrauded the SNAP program of at least $1.9 million, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Friday.
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The benefit to SNAP recipients was that they could use the cash buy whatever they want, be it alcohol and tobacco or clothes and toiletries. Ogunleye and Gordon, meanwhile, were able to collect full payment from the government for the full dollar amount of benefits they accepted.
It's a win-win for everyone -- except, of course, the government, which Congress has tasked with ensuring that SNAP benefits be used to buy food and food-like products. For bucking the rules, Gordon faces a maximum 285 years in federal prison and a $7.5 million fine (he's charged with five counts of food-stamp fraud, six of wire fraud, one of conspiracy to commit food stamp fraud). Ogunleye, who is also charged with two counts of "structuring financial transactions," faces 305 years in prison and an $8 million fine.
If the penalty seems oddly stiff, it is: Bernie Madoff, by contrast, a man who screwed investors out of billions of dollars and made himself the arch-villain of the Great Recession, faced (and was ultimately sentenced to) 150 years behind bars.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.