An investigation led by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Regional Organized Crime Task Force has resulted in charges against a Chicago convenience store owner for orchestrating a massive public aid fraud by stealing from the Illinois LINK Card food stamp program, according to the Office of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
Dubbed “Operation Ghost,” the investigation targeted Syreeta Houston, who operates a business called Triple C Grocery & Deli, located at 4948 W. Chicago Ave. on the city’s West side. Houston has been charged with one count each of Organizer of a Financial Crime Enterprise (Class X), Continuing Financial Crimes Enterprise (Class 1), Conducting a Transaction of Over $100,000 (Class 1), Conducting a Transaction of Over $10,000 (Class 2), and six counts of Wire Fraud (Class 3). If convicted, she faces a prison term ranging from 6 to 30 years.
The investigation was conducted by the State’s Attorney’s Regional Organized Crime Task Force in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General-Investigations, and the Chicago Police Department.
Law enforcement began the investigation in 2012 after a review of deposit activity into the store’s business account revealed a pattern consistent with public aid fraud. Investigators believed Houston was conducting phony transactions with state issued LINK cards that allowed customers to receive a portion of the value charged to the government in cash from the store. According to investigators, Houston would keep the rest, including 100% of the reimbursement from the USDA.
“This operation should serve as a warning to those who attempt to exploit public assistance programs for their own financial gain,” said Alvarez. “We thank all of our partner agencies for their coordinated efforts to disrupt this ongoing fraud from this publicly-funded program intended to assist needy citizens.”
Under the LINK program, food stamp benefits are loaded onto a recipient’s LINK Card, which functions like a debit card and allows for the purchase of only approved items. When an approved purchase is made, the transaction is processed electronically and payments are wired directly to the store’s bank account. Participating retailers cannot accept LINK payments for prepared meals or other non-food items they may sell such as alcohol or tobacco products.
Between the time period of June 19, 2013 and January 29, 2014 an undercover officer made numerous transactions with employees of the store in which the officer would request cash back in exchange for debiting food stamp benefits contained on the LINK Card. The officer also purchased unstamped cigarettes with LINK card benefits.
Houston entered a plea of not guilty today during an arraignment hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago.
The public is reminded that charging documents contain allegations that are not evidence of guilt. The defendant is entitled to a fair trial at which the state has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.