A second Gretna convenience store owner in as many months has been sentenced to nearly three years in federal prison and ordered to make seven-figure restitution for trafficking in food stamps.
Jimmy Bui, 57, who lives in Harvey, accepted food stamps from customers of Theresa’s Seafood in exchange for cash and products like beer and cigarettes, items that are ineligible for purchase under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Bui, who pleaded guilty in February to food stamp fraud, was sentenced last week by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt to 33 months in federal prison. He and his wife, Teresa Thuy Bui, who was sentenced to four years of probation for not reporting the felony to authorities, were ordered to pay more than $1.6 million in restitution to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to court documents.
The Buis opened their store in 2004 and were soon authorized to accept food stamps. Retailers participating in SNAP may accept food stamps only in exchange for eligible products such as eggs, milk, cheese, fruits and vegetables — items in scant supply at Theresa’s Seafood, where alcohol and tobacco were more popular purchases.
“It had no grocery carts or counter space to check out a large number of eligible food items,” federal prosecutors wrote of the store in court documents. “It had one register without an optical scanner; therefore, all items are manually entered by the cashier.”
Nevertheless, the corner store’s average individual food stamp transactions were larger than at a nearby Wal-Mart Supercenter, a red flag the authorities said was consistent with shady food stamp dealing.
Between December 2009 and January 2013, an undercover agent and a “cooperating witness” bought ineligible items from Theresa’s and also received cash from the store in exchange for food stamps, according to court documents.
Jimmy Bui accepted food stamps for cash at a discounted value “and retained the full value of the SNAP benefits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the rate of approximately 60 cents on the dollar,” prosecutors wrote. “Therefore, Theresa’s Seafood profited by keeping a cash transaction fee of approximately 40 percent.”
Investigators determined the store had redeemed more than $2.4 million in food stamp purchases between January 2009 and February 2012. During the same time, the store’s expenditures for eligible food stamp items, with a 35 percent markup, amounted to only about $320,000, according to the government’s review of financial documents.
Teresa Bui, 62, worked with her husband “at various times” and was aware he was trading cash for food stamps, prosecutors said. She should have known the rules and regulations of the food stamp program, prosecutors added, because she went through the store’s authorization process 10 years ago in order for the store to be able to accept food stamps.
Jimmy Bui was ordered to surrender to federal custody by June 23 to begin serving his sentence. His case was similar to the government’s prosecution of Long T. Trinh, 44, of New Orleans, who opened the Seafood Heaven convenience store in Gretna and began accepting food stamps from customers in January 2002.
Trinh also admitted taking food stamps in exchange for cash and ineligible items such as beer and cigarettes; prosecutors put the amount of fraudulent funds he received through trafficking at about $2.3 million — a sum he was ordered to repay in restitution. U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon sentenced Trinh last month to 34 months in federal prison.
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