Marietta store owner faces prison in food stamp fraud

A Marietta convenience store owner faces up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty Tuesday in federal court to allowing food stamp customers to buy more than $500,000 in alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and other unapproved items.

Prosecutors said Shamsha Mirza Vasaya would also give patrons 50 cents on the dollar for their food stamps, in addition to allowing them to buy items not allowed, such as gasoline.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, says $330 million in taxpayer funds are diverted annually from the $64.7 billion program through similar unscrupulous means.

The transactions are electronically recorded, and investigators have stepped up monitoring thousands of convenience and mom-and-pop stores to curb the illegal sales, according to an Associated Press report.

Between June 2009 and July of this year, prosecutors say Vasaya’s Chevron Food Mart at 811 South Marietta Parkway made about $557,421 from the scheme.

“Food stamps are intended to provide assistance to our fellow citizens most in need,” U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said in a release Tuesday. “This defendant took a program intended to provide a helping hand, and turned it into an ATM.”

Georgia had 1,851,586 people on food stamps in August, or 19 percent of its population, according to the USDA. Nationwide, nearly 15 percent used food stamps during the period.

Last month, store owner Elbert Eugene Shinholster of Wilkinson County pleaded guilty to defrauding the food stamp program of more than $4.68 million over five years. Authorities called it the largest food stamp fraud in the state's history in money lost to taxpayers.

Over the past three years there have been 597 convictions nationwide and $197.4 million in fines, restitution and forfeiture orders, according to the USDA.

Vasaya will be sentenced Jan. 24, and in addition to a maximum 20-year sentence she faces a fine of up to $250,000