BRADENTON - Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube says his deputies have busted dozens of people for food stamp fraud. And he says he has arrest warrants out for a hundred more.
Moving the food stamp program to what are called EBT Cards, Steube says, has not made it difficult for people to sell the cards for cash. And, with no obvious public safety issue at stake, he seems to have run two versions of Operation Meal Ticket to highlight a fraud that he believes spans the state. "This his a huge fraud, through the federal government, and through our state," Steube said at a news conference Wednesday.
Steube said people facing charges sold their EBT cards for about 60% of their value, and used the money to buy drugs or alcohol. "A couple of them said I'm headed to get some rock cocaine," Steube said.
But at least one, he said, used the cards to help run his business. Gerald Millas owns three pizza restaurants, including Pizza Pro's (sic) in a shopping plaza at the corner of 14th Street West and 57th Avenue West in Bradenton. He says Millas used the cards he had bought for a fraction of their worth to buy supplies for his restaurants.
A worker at the restaurant Thursday told ABC 7 that Millas was not there.
The sheriff says another man arrested, Stephen Boyd, had an EBT card not only in Florida, but in Maryland and South Carolina too. The lack of laws requiring businesses to verify that EBT cards belong to the person using them, make it easy for people to use them to steal from taxpayers, Stseube says, noting with frustration that such an abuse of tax dollars can happen while tight budgets constrain his crime-fighting efforts.
"This makes me angry that this is going on when I can't go before my own county commission to get the money that I feel is necessary to run my agency," he said.
He believes that putting something as simple people's photos on EBT cards, or simply requiring that people show a driver's license to use them would eliminate much of the fraud. He says he will meet with U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, next week, hoping that Buchanan will carry his concerns to Washington.