Prosecutors: Store owner defrauded food stamp program of $730K - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Prosecutors: Store owner defrauded food stamp program of $730K

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

The owner of a West Side Austin neighborhood convenience store pleaded not guilty Thursday to defrauding Illinois' food stamp program of more than $730,000 to buy luxury cars and other high-end goods.

Authorities began investigating Syreeta Houston in 2012 after a review of deposit activity at Triple C Grocery & Deli revealed a pattern consistent with public aid fraud, the Cook County State's Attorney's office said in a statement.

Prosecutors claim Houston conducted phony transactions with state-issued LINK cards that allowed customers to receive part of its value in cash from the store at 4948 W. Chicago Ave.

Houston allegedly kept the rest, including 100 percent of the reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to the state's attorney's office.

Under the LINK program, food stamp benefits are loaded onto a card that functions like a debit card, but can only be used to buy approved items.

Between June 2013 and January 2014, an undercover officer made numerous transactions at the store, and was able to request cash back in exchange for using food stamp benefits, prosecutors claim.

The officer also used a LINK card to buy unstamped cigarettes, which are not allowed to be purchased with food stamp benefits, prosecutors claim.

Investigators seized more than $736,000 in cash and goods tied to the alleged fraud, including $400,511 in cash, state's attorney's office spokesman Stephen Campbell said.

Authorities also seized three cars worth more than $260,000—a Ford F-150 pickup, a Porsche Cayenne and a Rolls Royce Ghost, the latter inspiring the name of the investigation, "Operation Ghost," Campbell said.

Officials were able to verify the cars were purchased with money from the store's accounts, Campbell said.

Another $79,000 in property including iPads, Rolexes, diamond watches and other goods were also seized, Campbell said.

Houston is charged with organizing a financial crime enterprise, continuing a financial crimes enterprise, conducting a transaction over $100,000, conducting a transaction of over $10,000, and six counts of wire fraud, authorities said.

Houston, 34, of the 1200 block of South State Street, was ordered held on a $100,000 bond at a March 6 hearing, prosecutors said. She was released after posting bail, according a Cook County Sheriff's office spokesman.

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