ATLANTA - Dozens of Georgians are under indictment, charged in what prosecutors call one of the largest federal food program frauds ever prosecuted.
"This is a huge deal for Georgia," said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, Georgia's public health commissioner.
The federal government has indicted 54 people connected to a massive statewide fraud scheme involving the food stamp and WIC programs.
"This is unacceptable behavior. This will not be tolerated in Georgia," Fitzgerald said.
Prosecutors say those involved set up and ran bogus grocery stores, now shut down, from metro Atlanta to Savannah and then canvassed nearby neighborhoods for customers willing to sell their food stamps and WIC vouchers for pennies on the dollar.
"When you steal from the federal government, it's theft," U.S. Attorney Edward Tarver said.
Tarver said the scheme went on for years and cost taxpayers $18 million.
"These are programs that were provided by Congress to provide nutritional food assistance to the most needy in our society," Tarver said.
Prosecutors say a husband and wife team, Brandon and Kimberly Sapp, masterminded the conspiracy.
Kimbery Sapp was listed as the owner of a store that used to be in southeast Atlanta; according to the indictment, the couple owned every store involved in the scheme.
A scheme so large and so complex even the Department of Public Health's deputy inspector general, Ondre Jennings, who spent more than two years on the case, had never seen anything like it.
"Not to this scope, not to this magnitude, as far as the number of people involved and the number of WIC vouchers that were used in the case," Jennings said.
More than 30 other people are charged in a second indictment for selling their food stamps and WIC benefits.
In all, more than 80 people face charges, and at last count 70, including the suspected ringleaders, have been arrested.