TRENTON –A grocery store owner pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring with others, including a former employee of the City of Newark, to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federally funded Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program by means of fraudulent vouchers, Attorney General Anne Milgram announced.
According to Criminal Justice Director Deborah L. Gramiccioni, Benedicto Bernal, 30, of Newark, owner of Dreamers Supermarket on 7th Ave. in Newark, pleaded guilty to a charge of 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 Corruption Bureau on June 8, 2009.
Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Bernal be sentenced to 10 years in state prison, one-third of which would have to be served without possibility of parole. Neafsey scheduled sentencing for March 3. Deputy Attorney General Michael A Monahan took the guilty plea for the Division of Criminal Justice.
In pleading guilty, 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 throughout New Jersey. Bernal admitted that his transactions were designed to conceal the source of the vouchers and their fraudulent nature.
An ongoing 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, 42, of Newark, previously 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, 39, 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.
Bernal was indicted along with Audrey Walker Bey, 36, of Newark, a former clerk for the Newark WIC Program and Elvis Manuel Sanchez-Vasquez, 35, a former owner and manager of Sanchez Supermarket on Springdale Avenue in East Orange.
The charges against Walker Bey and Sanchez-Vasquez are pending. Walker Bey was arrested in May 2008 as a result of the investigation and is free on $40,000 bail. An arrest warrant has been issued for Sanchez-Vasquez, who remains a fugitive, authorities said.
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.
On May 15, 2008, Leocadia Cepeda, 38, the owner of G&S Supermarket on Westminster Avenue in Elizabeth, was indicted for allegedly obtaining more than 500 WIC vouchers that she knew were stolen and using them to fraudulently collect more than $25,000 from the state Department of Health and Senior Services. Cepeda was admitted into the Pre-Trial Intervention Program on the condition that she pay full restitution and cooperate in the ongoing investigation.
Connect with NJTODAY.NET
Join NJTODAY.NET's free Email List to receive occasional updates delivered right to your email address!