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September 27, 10

NEWS / Former East Orange Grocery Store Owner Pleads Guilty to Defrauding Federally Funded Child Nutrition


State investigation uncovered $1 million in phony vouchers

TRENTON – Attorney General Paula T. Dow and Criminal Justice Director Stephen J. Taylor announced that a former East Orange grocery store owner has pleaded guilty to money laundering in connection with a scheme to defraud the federally funded Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program by means of fraudulent vouchers.

According to Director Taylor, Elvis Manuel Sanchez-Vazquez, 36, of Elizabeth, a former owner of Sanchez Supermarket on Springdale Avenue in East Orange, pleaded guilty yesterday to first-degree money laundering before Superior Court Judge Edward M. Neafsey in Mercer County. The charge was contained in an eight-count state grand jury indictment obtained by the Division of Criminal Justice on June 8, 2009.

Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Sanchez-Vazquez be sentenced to 10 years in state prison, one-third of which would have to be served without possibility of parole. Judge Neafsey scheduled sentencing for Dec. 15. Deputy Attorney General Michael A. Monahan took the guilty plea for the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau.

In pleading guilty, Sanchez-Vazquez, an authorized WIC vendor, admitted that he knowingly purchased fraudulent WIC vouchers from another defendant in the case, Benedicto Bernal, and deposited them in a bank account he controlled in order to fraudulently collect more than $500,000 from the WIC program. He admitted that his transactions were designed to conceal the source and fraudulent nature of the vouchers.

Bernal, 32, of Newark, owner of Dreamers Supermarket on 7th Avenue in Newark, pleaded guilty on Dec. 1, 2009, to a charge of first-degree money laundering before Judge Neafsey. Bernal, who was not an authorized WIC vendor, admitted that he purchased fraudulent vouchers from Charles Brown, a former senior clerk for the Newark WIC Program, and resold them by the stack to vendors in Essex, Camden, Union and Middlesex counties. Ultimately, the fraudulent vouchers were deposited into the bank accounts of more than 20 WIC-authorized vendors.

The investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau revealed that between Dec. 1, 2005, and Jan. 31, 2007, Brown and other employees of the Newark WIC Program conspired to issue more than $1 million in fake vouchers.

Brown, 43, of Newark, pleaded guilty to second-degree official misconduct for his role in the scheme and was sentenced on Feb. 23, 2009, to eight years in state prison by Superior Court Judge Michael A. Petrolle in Essex County. On Feb. 20, 2009, another former senior clerk in the Newark WIC Program, Wyetta Judson, 40, of Newark, pleaded guilty to second-degree official misconduct. She has not been sentenced yet. The state will recommend that she also be sentenced to state prison.

Sanchez-Vazquez and Bernal were indicted along with Audrey Walker Bey, 37, of Newark, a former clerk for the Newark WIC Program. The charges against Walker Bey are pending. Walker Bey was arrested in May 2008 as a result of the investigation and is free on $40,000 bail.

Sanchez-Vazquez was arrested in February 2010. Bail was set at $500,000. He is an undocumented immigrant and has been referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). A federal detainer has been placed on him.

The investigation began when the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services and the Newark Department of Health and Human Services alerted the Division of Criminal Justice to suspected thefts of vouchers from the Newark WIC Program.

Deputy Attorneys General Michael Monahan and Jeffrey Manis are prosecuting the case. The investigation was conducted by Detective Michael Behar and Sgt. David Salzmann of the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau, with the assistance of Administrative Analyst Kathleen Ratliff.

WIC is a federally funded program, administered by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, that provides low-income women who are pregnant or breast feeding and guardians of children up to age 5 with vouchers to purchase nutritional necessities, including baby formula, milk, orange juice and cereal. The vouchers can be redeemed at any store approved as a WIC vendor for food items specifically listed on the voucher. Once redeemed, the vendor completes the voucher by filling in the cost of the product supplied. The Newark WIC Program is one of 18 WIC programs in New Jersey.

http://www.nj.gov/oag/newsreleases10/pr20100924a.html

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