MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. - They were walked in one by one. Some of them hung their heads, but one man wore his feelings on the outside, sporting a "jail sucks" tee-shirt as he walked into the Manatee County Sheriff's Office in handcuffs.
On Wednesday, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office announced an undercover operation they have been working on for months, Operation Meal Ticket II. It resulted in arrest warrants for 103 people with a total of 123 charges. So far, 39 of those people have been arrested and booked into the Manatee County Jail.
"This is a huge problem, and we're like one of maybe three or four law enforcement agencies in the state of Florida that have decided to do something about this," Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Operation Meal Ticket II involves EBT cards being used fraudulently.
One part of the investigation centered around Gerald Millas, a local restaurant owner who police say purchased EBT cards from people in the area for 50 to 60 cents on the dollar. Police say he then used the cards to purchase food for his three Pizza Pros restaurants in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
"We were able to determine that he used 53 different EBT cards at Sam's Clubs," Steube said.
Detectives have arrest warrants for the 48 people who sold their EBT cards to Millas.
In January, part two of the investigation began. Police say 55 people were caught illegally selling their EBT cards to undercover detectives for 50 to 60 cents on the dollar. Police believe some of the suspects would then turn around and use the cash to purchase drugs and/or alcohol.
"A couple of them said I'm headed to go get some rock cocaine," Steube said in the news conference.
During the operation, the Sheriff's Office purchased EBT cards totaling nearly $9,000. To keep up their undercover front, they had to use the cards. Steube says the detectives did so by purchasing baby formula which was then donated to the Food Bank of Manatee County.
"It's your taxpayer money and my taxpayer money that facilitates these EBT cards," said Steube. "To me, this is a huge fraud through the federal government and through our state. It affects every one of us in this room that pays taxes."
"It's terrible. You should buy it for what you need, for staples to keep you alive. It's not meant for frilly things," said local taxpayer Brad Braden.
Steube is now in talks with Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Congressman Vern Buchanan. He hopes legislation can be introduced to make it tougher for people to fraudulently use the EBT system. Steube suggested Wednesday the idea of using photographs on the EBT cards to make it tougher for a person to use someone else's card.
Those arrested in Operation Meal Ticket II are being charged with both misdemeanor and felony social welfare fraud.