Taxpayers are shelling out more than $8 billion dollars a year in Texas for food stamps but that money does not always ends up with the families who need it most.
And Fox 4 found the government is doing little to put the brakes on this program plagued with problems. In the end, we all pay the price.
Four million Texas families depend on food stamps. But Fox 4 found when the bucks go missing; the government is quick to pass the buck.
It is breakfast time and James Cook has his hands full. Six hungry kids and now he is facing eviction. For the past few months, he's been using his rent money to pay for food because he says a company named JNJ Grocery debited his Lone Star card three times, taking almost a grand from his family.
"This company has just been stealing our food stamps," said Cook.
Cook works for a yard service company but his family depends on food stamps to make ends meet.
"Selfish," said Cook. "Not thinking about what they are doing to families," he continued.
"This is my refrigerator," said Petrina Wheeler.
Wheeler says her refrigerator and pantry are nearly empty. She is diabetic and suffers from Lupus but she has been living on mac and cheese.
"I went to the hospital and my blood sugar was 482 and that was because I was not eating what I normally eat," said Wheeler.
Wheeler says half of her monthly benefit disappeared. The state deposited the funds into her account but minutes later, JNJ made a withdrawal.
"I don't think it is right for you to go in and mess over me," said Tiecia Dix.
Dix says hundreds of dollars disappeared from her Lone Star account two months in a row. It is money she needed to feed her three kids.
All three of these families filed complaints with the state food stamp office. They said they never used the grocery delivery company and never even heard of JNJ. Fox 4 went by the office located in South Dallas to see what was up but no one was there and the office was empty. County records show Daneisha Williams is the owner of JNJ. She is 21 years old.
Stephanie Goodman, with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission says in the past 18 months, clients filed 891 complaints against JNJ.
"That is more than a pattern," said Goodman. "Certainly a retailer like JNJ, where we have had a history with just an inordinate number of complaints over the past 18months, we absolutely refer that to the federal government."
So what are the feds doing? Fox 4 does not know. When it comes to the Lone Star card, everything is private. The feds will not release any information about the owner or the company even though you as a taxpayer are supporting this multi-billion dollar program.
Since Williams was not at the office, we called her. She told us she was out of town but agreed to meet us when she got back at Elam Park.
The day we showed us, Williams was a no show.
"So what is the problem if you are in Dallas, let's clear the air," said reporter Becky Oliver.
Williams told Oliver she would call her when she was ready to discuss it.
"This is the time to talk about it now, not later," said Oliver. "We are sitting in the park. You have almost 900 complaints at the state about this and a lot of people who are very upset about unauthorized purchases on their card. It is traced back to your company."
Williams hung up.
County records show, when Williams was just 18 years old she was the registered owner of another food stamp business called Williams Convenient Store on Wheels.
A year later in 2011, the feds "permanently disqualified" that company from the food stamp program for "trafficking in SNAP benefits," which means the company was trading cash for people's benefits.
The feds claim they have a "zero tolerance policy on fraud" but records show after the feds "permanently disqualified" the first grocery business, Williams turned around and registered JNJ in Dallas County just one month later and became an authorized food stamp retailer once again.
"She literally violated us," said Petrina Wheeler. "She took from us things we needed to survive. I am mad as hell and I am not going to stop."
We also found this mug shot on file at the Houston Police Department. Williams was busted for theft and earlier this year completed her probation. The charge was dismissed.
The City of Dallas also shows 5 active warrants for her arrest for everything from driving without a license to no insurance and speeding. Her fines total almost $3,000.
"I contacted you last month about you withdrawing benefits from my food stamp account," said Wheeler into the phone.
After Williams hung up on Oliver, Wheeler tried to reach her but she wouldn't answer.
"I am going to hunt you down," said Wheeler.
Wheeler disputed the charge to her account but the state refused to put the money back claiming JNJ provided a copy of a receipt with Wheeler's signature. That's all a retailer needs to withdraw the money, a simple signature. So Wheeler went to the food stamp office to get a copy of that receipt.
"I never sign anything Trina Wheeler," said Wheeler.
The receipt did not even have her full name and clearly did not match the signature on her state card.
"I am livid right now," said Wheeler. "They forged my signature on my paperwork."
The state returned $165 to Cook but nearly a grand is still in dispute. So far, the state has not been able to provide any copies of receipts to Cook.
"You stole from my kids and they don't deserve that," said Cook.
Petrina Wheeler learned over the weekend that some of her money has now been returned to her account. While that is great news for Wheeler, it means the taxpayers are now paying for her benefits twice. Cook and Nix are still waiting to hear from the state about their disputes.
Williams told Fox 4 she closed the business in June but the feds are reporting no information about the business shutting down.
If someone believes their Lone Star Card was charged inappropriately, they should call the Lone Star Help desk at 800-777-7328.
The state can investigate and restore benefits and deduct them from the vendor's payment.
Use the 800-777-7328 number to request a new card if someone has obtained the card number and personal identification number (PIN).
NEVER give the PIN to anyone.
KDFW FOX 4
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