The owners of a Gulf gas station in downtown Riverhead were arrested Thursday morning for allegedly orchestrating a scheme to steal more than $670,000 from a government food and nutrition program, the New York State attorney general announced.
Almost two dozen other Suffolk County residents, including 17 from Riverhead Town, were also arrested as part of a 60-count grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday after an 18-month investigation, said state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Police raided the East Main Street gas station Thursday morning, arresting owner Ravinder Parkash, 59, for felony grand larceny and money laundering, state officials said.
Mr. Parkash was held on $500,000 cash bail at an arraignment Thursday afternoon at Suffolk County criminal court — state prosecutors used the court space, even though the defendants are not being charged by county authorities — and is due back in court July 9.
“He does not have substantial ties to the community other than the convenience store he operates, which is where he engaged in this criminal conspiracy,” assistant attorney general Tyler Reynolds told acting state Supreme Court Judge James Hudson in court.
The alleged scheme involved illegally trading cash for hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, the attorney general said.
“The conduct alleged in this case became even more heinous when we found the defendants stole emergency benefits for victims of Hurricane Sandy and used it for their own selfish purposes,” Mr. Schneiderman said in a release.
Police also arrested Mr. Parkash’s wife, Prabha Rani, 58, and two dozen other recipients on theft charges.
Ms. Rani was held on $250,000 cash bail after her arraignment and is also due back in court July 9.
Mr. Parkash and his wife processed “phantom” SNAP transactions in cooperation with the cardholders without selling them any food from April 2010 to June 2013, the attorney general said. The owners allegedly gave the cardholders cash equalling up to half of the amount of the fake purchase and kept the remainder of the money for themselves, officials said.
Following Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allocated an additional 50 percent in benefits to all SNAP recipients in affected areas without regard to need. The recipients charged in the case received Sandy benefits and illegally used their cards for cash in the months after the storm, the attorney general said.
The 18-month investigation revealed that in 2012 alone, Mr. Parkash and Ms. Rani rang up over $329,000 in SNAP benefits, authorities said while comparing those numbers to those SNAP benefits being tallied at nearby stores, none of which were higher than $6,439.
In every month since 2011, the couple redeemed more than $22,000 in SNAP benefits, with the number jumping to $36,000 in November 2012, and $30,000 in December after all SNAP card holders in Suffolk received the additional aide after Hurricane Sandy
The money laundering charge comes as a “result of his use of a bank account set up for the use of New York State Lottery business that came into his store, but which he used to launder proceeds of his illegal scheme,” authorities said.
Also arrested and charged with one count of fourth-degree grand larceny and one count of misuse of food stamps were: Carla Anderson, 38, of Riverhead; Jill Arrington, 38, of Calverton; Anthony Calloway, 36, of Riverhead; Lakisha Darden, 36, of Aquebogue; Eric Dunsing, 37, of Riverhead; Kerri Ferrante, 27, of Riverhead; Shavon Goode, 30, of Riverhead; Josie Harris, 47, of Riverhead; Jessica Kennedy, 27, of Riverhead; Cynthia Massenburg, 48, of Riverhead; Tameka Miles, 31, of Riverhead; Stephanie Nash, 28, of Riverhead; Troy Smolen, 46, of Riverhead and Sirena Trent, 38, of Riverhead.
Five others from elsewhere in Suffolk County were also arrested.
The defendants, several of whom were wearing pajamas, were arraigned Thursday in a packed courtroom.
Also indicted were Brenda Richardson, 50, of Riverhead; Eric Brown Jr., 24, of Riverhead and Anthony Durham Jr., 26, of Riverhead. They have not yet been apprehended.
The attorney general filed a civil suit against Mr. Parkash, Ms. Rani and their business, Shivani Enterprises, Inc., seeking restitution of more than $670,000 and damages of more than $2 million. The business was also criminally charged.
Police confiscated a computer, security cameras and information regarding food stamps during the gas station raid, according to witnesses at the store.
Mr. Parkash was also arrested in April 2012 on charges that he sold alcohol to a minor from the snack mart.
Town assessment rolls list Prabha Rani as the property owner.
ORIGINAL STORY: Police raided a Gulf gas station on East Main Street in downtown Riverhead Thursday morning, confiscating a computer, security cameras and information regarding food stamps, according to witnesses at the store.
A man at the station’s snack mart, who requested his name not be used in this report, said he received a phone call from the property owner requesting the man open the store to authorities.
The gas station was cordoned off while state police and New York State attorney general’s office investigators combed the store, the man said.
He said employees at the station’s snack mart didn’t know what prompted the raid. The store was re-opened about 9:20 a.m. after officers left the scene. State police said they are coordinating the investigation with the state attorney general’s office.
State officials would not comment on any arrests or pending charges.
The property owner could not be reached for comment.