- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - With help from federal officials, South Carolina’s top prosecutor has set up a specialized unit in a pilot project to go after people accused of abusing the state’s food stamp program.

At the beginning of this year, Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office began dedicating a prosecutor solely to prosecuting fraud within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Wilson said some recipients of the federally funded benefits are improperly using the benefits cards like ATM cards, giving them to vendors in return for cash payouts instead of using them to buy approved food items.

“People are redeeming these cards and using the money to purchase anything,” the Republican prosecutor said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “It could go to strip club, a liquor store, buying a Gucci bag - something it was never intended for.”

As of December, more than 385,000 South Carolina households were participating in the SNAP program, which is administered by the agency with funds provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Through the third quarter of the fiscal year in 2014, the USDA had imposed sanctions, through fines or temporary disqualifications, on more than 500 stores nationwide and permanently disqualified more than 1,000 stores for illegally exchanging SNAP benefits, according to DSS.

The pilot project in South Carolina is supported by a $318,840 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Assistant Attorney General Nicole Wetherton says that she has two cases already pending in South Carolina, with several dozen more under investigation by DSS officials, who will then bring their evidence to her.

“I’m trying to move them as quickly as possible,” Wetherton said. “I feel the cases that I have right now are pretty good.”

Wilson said he got the idea for the specialized prosecution unit after taking a look at his office’s efforts to go after people defrauding the Medicaid system. The same USDA program that’s underwriting South Carolina’s effort is helping develop similar programs in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas.

“Anytime you have a lot of government money going to a program to assist poor people or at-risk people, there’s always going to be folks who see a deep pool of money, seemingly unlimited income, and they’re going to try to abuse it,” Wilson recently told The Associated Press. “We’re going after people who are defrauding the government out of money that should be going to money who truly need it to survive.”

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Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP


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