TRENTON – A former employee of the City of Newark was sentenced to prison Wednesday for conspiring 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 Jeffrey S. Chiesa announced. Two store owners who participated in the scheme were also sentenced to prison on Jan. 16.
Audrey Walker Bey, 38, of Newark, a former clerk for the Newark WIC Program, was sentenced to eight years in state prison by Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Brown in Mercer County. One-third of the sentence must be served without possibility of parole. Bey pleaded guilty on Oct. 4, 2011 to first-degree money laundering. She is permanently barred from public employment in New Jersey. Deputy Attorney General Michael Monahan, Deputy Chief of the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau, prosecuted Bey and her co-defendants and handled the sentencing hearings.
Bey admitted that she used her position as a clerk for the Newark WIC Program to issue and print thousands of fraudulent vouchers. An investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Corruption Bureau revealed that between July 2004 and January 2007, Bey and other Newark WIC employees, including two other clerks who previously entered guilty pleas, conspired to issue over $1 million in fake vouchers. The fake vouchers were sold to middlemen, who resold them to grocery store owners. The store owners collected WIC funds without providing any food products.
“WIC vouchers are meant to provide nutritional necessities for disadvantaged children, but this clerk for the Newark WIC program corruptly and selfishly stole program funds by counterfeiting and selling vouchers with other individuals,” said Chiesa. “The lengthy prison sentences imposed on Bey and her two co-defendants reflect our commitment to prosecute public corruption aggressively, whether it involves government assistance programs or any other public program or agency.”
“We have secured long prison terms for the defendants at the center of this million-dollar fraud, and we have also indicted 14 store owners and employees for allegedly cashing in on the scheme,” said Stephen J. Taylor, Director of the Division of Criminal Justice. “A number of the store owners have also pleaded guilty. Our detectives and attorneys skillfully followed the trail of vouchers to charge the many participants in this conspiracy.”
Bey was charged in a June 9, 2009 indictment, which also charged Benedicto Bernal, 33, owner of Dreamers Supermarket on 7th Avenue in Newark, and Elvis Manuel Sanchez-Vasquez, 38, of Elizabeth, former owner of Sanchez Supermarket on Springdale Avenue in East Orange. Bernal and Sanchez-Vasquez were also sentenced on Jan. 16 by Brown. Each man was sentenced to eight years in prison, one-third of which must be served without parole.
Bernal pleaded guilty on Dec. 1, 2009, to first-degree money laundering. 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 WIC-authorized food vendors. Ultimately, the false vouchers sold by Bernal and other middlemen were deposited into bank accounts of over 20 WIC-authorized vendors in Essex, Camden, Union and Middlesex counties. Sanchez-Vasquez pleaded guilty on Sept. 23, 2010 to first-degree money laundering. Sanchez-Vazquez, an authorized WIC vendor, admitted that he knowingly purchased fraudulent WIC vouchers from Bernal and deposited them into a bank account he controlled in order to fraudulently collect over $500,000 from the WIC program.
Charles Brown, 44, of Newark, the former senior clerk for the Newark WIC Program who sold vouchers to Bernal, 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. Another former senior clerk in the Newark WIC Program, Wyetta Judson, 41, of Newark, pleaded guilty on Feb. 20, 2009 to second-degree official misconduct. She will also face a state prison term when she is sentenced.
Twenty-eight defendants have been charged in the investigation. On Nov. 10, 2011 the Division of Criminal Justice obtained an indictment charging 12 grocery store owners and two employees with participating in the conspiracy to steal over $1 million from the WIC program. All 14 defendants were charged with conspiracy, money laundering, official misconduct, pattern of official misconduct, theft by deception, and receiving stolen property. They allegedly stole from the WIC program by obtaining funds using false vouchers without providing any food products to WIC participants.
A defendant in the November indictment, Martin Martinez, 51, of Newark, former owner of Duran Stop 1 on Bergen Street in Newark, pleaded guilty on May 15 to first-degree money laundering before Petrolle. Martinez was sentenced on July 25 to six years in state prison, including two years of parole ineligibility. He entered a consent judgment to pay $158,490 in restitution to the New Jersey WIC program. Another defendant in that indictment, John Cepeda, 36, of Elizabeth, a manager of Los Tiburones on Bergen Street in Newark, pleaded guilty to first-degree money laundering and was sentenced by Petrolle on April 25 to five years in prison, including 20 months of parole ineligibility. He was ordered to pay $71,327 to the New Jersey WIC program.
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 Attorney General Monahan has prosecuted the defendants with Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Manis. The investigation was conducted for the Division of Criminal Justice by Sgt. David Salzmann, Detective Michael Behar, DAG Monahan, DAG Manis, Administrative Analyst Kathleen Ratliff, Sgt. Harry Maronpot Jr., Detective Scott Donlan, Sgt. James Scott and Detective Tim Herron.
WIC is a federally funded program, administered by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, which 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 the voucher is 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.