9 Investigates: Food stamp fraud is costly for taxpayers

by: Allison Latos Updated:


MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. - More than a billion tax dollars are supposed to help families in Mecklenburg County put food on the table, but Channel 9 learned some people are lying about their need for food stamps.

Eyewitness News pulled court cases and flipped through documents detailing how some food stamp recipients lie about income and jobs to take millions of your tax dollars.

Prosecutors say Lakeisha Porter didn't tell the truth about how much money she was making.

She received close to $20,000 in food stamps on a debit card, pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor fraud charges and was ordered to pay nearly $17,000 in restitution.

Eyewitness News tried to track her down. Her mother said we had the wrong address, but got Porter on the phone.

“I just didn't report that I had went back to work,” Porter said.

She agreed to meet with Eyewitness News.

“You can set up a meeting with me,” Porter said. “That's fine. Somewhere we can talk. I don't have a problem with that.”

But then she never returned Eyewitness News’ calls.

Eyewitness News tried to locate other recipients who have pleaded guilty to food stamp fraud, but couldn't find them, either.

It’s something Julie Baldwin knows all too well. She is in charge of investigating these fraud cases for Mecklenburg County DSS.

“We want to make sure the right people receive the right benefits,” Baldwin said.

Eyewitness News learned in the 2011 fiscal year, Mecklenburg County handed out more than a billion dollars in food stamps, and millions ended up in the wrong hands.

“Five million dollars in food stamps is going to people in Mecklenburg County who don't technically deserve that cash?” Eyewitness News said.

“That may technically not be eligible, yes ma'am,” Baldwin said.  

Baldwin said eligibility depends on a person's income and how many people live in their home.

DSS tries to get overpayments back so people in need, like Ashley Nielson, get the benefits.

“I have a baby and I need food stamps,” she said.

To get that money back, the state can claim tax refunds, Social Security payments and lottery winnings.

But Mecklenburg County wants to crack down even more starting this July by garnishing wages and enforcing civil judgments.

Federal investigators are going after grocery stores trafficking food stamps, too.

Eyewitness News learned the USDA permanently disqualified the Clegg Starnes store in Monroe.

Channel 9 found the business with a new name and a new owner -- Tammy Ashley -- who said she can't get state approval to accept stamps because of the old owner.

“I told the state I'm being punished for something someone else has done that I had nothing to do with,” Ashley said.

Eyewitness News tracked down that previous owner. Thomas Bourgeois claimed he didn't know he wasn't allowed to give customers cash back on their food stamp debit cards. He showed Eyewitness News 40,000 receipts stating every store transaction was "approved."

“I'm not going up against the fed,” Bourgeois said. “If they say I'm guilty of something, then I just quit handling it.”

Investigators said tips from the public are key in helping them stop food stamp fraud. If you hear or see someone trading or selling food stamps, you can leave an anonymous tip at Mecklenburg County's fraud unit at 704-353-0600.