Answer to Charging Letter
For a number of years, a small Pensacola, Florida convenience store operated in a 1,500 square foot space. The store was one of six owned by a local gentleman. Each store operated similarly with a number of flat fee (bulk item) sale prices. Further, the store was located in the middle of a low income neighborhood, and was within walking distances of a number of duplexes.
Accordingly, the store owner stocked the shelves with a number of grocery items, many of which were canned or frozen goods. The local population became regular customers because the store offered reasonable prices and was within walking distance of their homes. For years, the store operated this way.
Allegations of SNAP Trafficking
In the store’s eighth year of operations, it received a SNAP Trafficking Charge Letter in which the USDA accused the store of fraudulently accepting benefits. The specific charges fell into three categories:
- A significant number of transactions occurred at the store in which the total ended in the same cents value (for example: ending in “.00” or “.99”);
- A series of transactions at the store happened on the same individual benefit accounts in unusually short time frames (less than twenty-four hours); and
- Excessively large purchase transactions occurred at the store more frequently than the USDA believed they should ($30 or more).
Attached to the letter were three different groups of transactions. Each group correlated to one of the categories listed on the front page. Though the Charge Letter lacked details, the store owner had only ten days to put together an answer.
Metropolitan Law Group’s Representation
Though the store owner had a local business attorney he regularly relied upon, the USDA’s charges required special knowledge and experience. After a free consultation, the store owner retained Mr. Andrew Z. Tapp of Metropolitan Law Group, PLLC, to defend the store.
Immediately upon being retained, the firm compiled evidence and documents that the USDA is required to consider before permanently disqualifying the convenience store. To this end, Mr. Tapp and his paralegal worked closely with the store owner, the store’s employees and customers to compile enough evidence to present the USDA with a full picture of the store’s operations. Most of the evidence was sent and received through e-mail to reduce cost and save time. In less than thirty days, the firm was able to compile a twenty-seven page response to the USDA’s letter.
Dismissal of SNAP Trafficking Charges
Less than two weeks after the USDA received Mr. Tapp’s defense of the store owner, the Department retracted the trafficking charges brought against the convenience store. The convenience store stayed in business and the customers were never made aware that anything had occurred.