Schenectady County

Schenectady store owner admits food stamp fraud

The owner of a small Schenectady store on Wednesday admitted his role in a massive fraud that result
Vishnunarine Singh, owner of Cheese Bakery and Grocery on State Street  in Schenectady, has admitted to defrauding the federal food stamp program out of close to $500,000 over a three-year period.
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Vishnunarine Singh, owner of Cheese Bakery and Grocery on State Street in Schenectady, has admitted to defrauding the federal food stamp program out of close to $500,000 over a three-year period.

The owner of a small Schenectady store on Wednesday admitted his role in a massive fraud that resulted in an estimated half-million dollars’ worth of food stamps being misused.

The Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office said Vishnunarine “Cheese” Singh, 58, of Ozone Park, pleaded guilty to one count each of second-degree grand larceny and felony misuse of food stamps in return for a promised total sentence of 3 to 9 years in prison.

The investigation into activities at Cheese Bakery and Grocery, 1007 State St., also led to the arrests of two of the owner’s sons, as well as more than two dozen people who traded their food stamps for half their face value in cash.

Authorities said Singh was the leader of the scheme and admitted to using his business to misuse an estimated $500,000 in benefits, handing over cash for individuals’ food stamps and pocketing the difference.

He is to be sentenced in February and had faced up to 5 to 15 years if convicted at trial. His attorney, Adam Parisi, could not be reached for comment later.

Also Wednesday, Singh’s older son, Elvin, pleaded guilty Wednesday to two misdemeanors in the case. The younger son was granted youthful offender status and prosecutors would not release his name or details about his case.

“The food stamp program exists to help people purchase items of food, not to be a commodity exchanged for money at a discount,” Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said in a statement. “Mr. Singh profited in a manner which damages the integrity of this very worthwhile program.”

Overall, between $450,000 and $600,000 worth of food stamps was believed to have been misused at the Schenectady store.

The elder Singh applied to accept food stamps starting in 2005. Early transactions were essentially normal for a store that size, Cheung said. By the end of 2009, though, they spiked and remained high until mid-2013, when the investigation began.

Investigators placed a camera outside the store, recording people coming and going over four months, Cheung said. The size of the purchases customers carried out, if they weren’t empty-handed, was cross-referenced with the dollar amount of the food stamp transactions.

The roughly 150 people recorded committing fraud in this manner lost their food stamp benefits for a year, according to prosecutor Kevin Cheung. The worst offenders — those who had three or more fraudulent transactions of more than $100 each — were charged criminally.

The food stamp disqualifications relate only to the individuals — their children were not disqualified.

Authorities said the scam involved food stamp recipients presenting their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, then having an amount — usually more than $100 — debited for a supposed purchase. The recipient then received half the amount in cash and the store kept the other half. Little or no goods would actually be purchased in the transactions, authorities said.

The program defrauded was the USDA’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Prosecutors said it was important to make an example with the case to deter future fraud and keep the program available to those who actually need it.

The overall amount of misused food stamps could be determined only by comparing the store’s numbers with comparable stores or comparing sales tax records with food stamp records, which is why there is not an exact total of the amount of fraud committed, Cheung said.

Similar stores might have $15,000 a month in food-stamp activity. Singh’s store was doing nearly $70,000.

Those methods provided estimates that the total fraud ranged from $450,000 to $600,000. Prosecutors settled on the $500,000 figure for total loss, which will be placed against Singh as a judgment for potential future restitution. Authorities are off to a slow start with that effort: Only about $5,000 in cash was seized, plus a van that may fetch $15,000 at auction, Cheung said.

Financial records showed federal food stamp payments would be withdrawn within a day of depositing. Singh was also known to carry cash to pay for customer’s benefits, Cheung said.

The arrests were the result of a six-month investigation by the Schenectady Police Department, Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office, Schenectady County Department of Social Services and United States Department of Agriculture. Also assisting in the operation was the Schenectady County Probation Department and Child Protective Services and the state Division of Parole, Department of Taxation and Finance, Department of Financial Services and Office of Temporary Disability Assistance.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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