By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
This week, KING 5 Investigators reported on incidences of food stamp fraud at Viet Wah Supermarket in the International District (ID).
KING 5’s Chris Ingalls reported that over the course of several weeks, crew members watched as food stamps were exchanged for cash around Viet Wah. To use food stamps, customers pay for their groceries by swiping debit-style cards to electronically record the transaction. In food stamp fraud, an employee may swipe a large amount, pay the customer a sum, and pocket the difference, though this isn’t the only way it is done.
Fraud in the government program has cost nearly $100 million since 2007, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
KING 5’s story comes only months after a food stamp-related crackdown by federal authorities and Seattle police, also in the ID. In early October, three people were arrested and two grocery stores, Seattle Chinese Herb & Grocery and Hop Thanh, were raided as part of an undercover investigation into food stamp trafficking.
“Many of our stories are tip-driven. The last story aired in October, and we continued to get tips after that story aired,” said Kellie Cheadle, executive producer of KING 5 Investigators, explaining that KING 5 did not target the ID in its coverage of food stamp fraud. “We get a lot of tips everyday, by phone, by e-mail, by other sources, and we go and check them out. If there’s something there, we definitely take the time to pursue it. We’re careful in our investigating and our methodology to make sure we have all the facts and all the information. We spend a lot time on all these stories. They don’t come together in a few hours. They can take weeks or months to put together.”
Cheadle said that the Viet Wah story is part of a larger series titled, Their Crime — Your Dime.
“We want to thank KING TV for doing the story,” said Duc Tran, chairman of Viet Wah Group. “It helps us to get rid of these people. These people have been hanging around our store for quite some time. We’ve called the police and food stamps department and reported on these people, but nothing happened. In fact, the food stamps department said we cannot discriminate against them. [They said] we have to treat them as customers, legally.”
Tran said that what is typical for Viet Wah grocery stores is that customers will buy Viet Wah’s rice with food stamps and then turn around and resell them to restaurants or other stores at a lower price.
“These people came into our stores to buy rice with their food stamps. We cannot decline. What they did was wrong, reselling to restaurants at lower price. If the restaurants won’t buy from them, these people would not take advantage of the food stamps,” said Tran.
Founded in 1981, Viet Wah Group is one of the largest Asian grocery importers, wholesale distributors, and retailers in the Pacific Northwest. ♦
Assunta Ng contributed to this report.