Three arrested for alleged role in a counterfeit food stamp scheme

Defendants include 2 DHSS employees and an Asian business owner

Two employees of the Department of Human and Social Services (DHSS) and a vendor of the American Samoa Nutrition Assistance Program (ASNAP) have been arrested in connection with a case involving food stamp fraud. The three defendants made their initial appearances in District Court last Friday.

The two DHSS employees are Jane Vasa and Vincent Toeava, and the vendor is Liren Zhang, a.k.a Kevin.

Another business owner is named as a party in the affidavit of support obtained by Samoa News but he is yet to be arrested or charged and it is unknown at this time if he will be.

District Court Judge Fiti Sunia set bail at $450,000 each for Toeava and Kevin, and $10,000 for Vasa. All three are currently in custody at the TCF, unable to post bond.

Vasa is being charged with one count of criminal fraud, a class C felony punishable by up to 7 years in jail or a fine of up to $5,000 or both.

Specifics on the charges against Toeava and Kevin could not be obtained as of press time.

According to the government’s case, DPS Commissioner Le’i S. Thompson assigned Captain Pierre R.G. Clemens of the DPS Internal Affairs Section to investigate the issue on Jan. 15, 2018.

According to the affidavit, the matter was brought to the DHSS Director Muavaefaatasi John Suisala's attention on Jan. 4, 2018 by the ASNAP Acting Assistant Director following her quick review of what caused the depletion of ASNAP funds for the first quarter of fiscal year 2018 (Q1 2018).

It was reported that the ANZ Bank redeemed $667, 555 more during the first quarter of 2018 than what ASNAP issued to its recipients.

In a review that followed, conducted by the DHSS and ASNAP management team, it was discovered that excessively high amounts of counterfeit ASNAP food coupons were redeemed by three ASNAP authorized retailers during this period.

Of the three retailers, two are owned by the same person while the third is owned by the individual, who as previously noted — has not been arrested or charged to date.

Two of the three retailers owned by defendant Kevin are: “JFL Malae Store” and “Fast By Food Mart”.

Court documents state that police discovered during a preliminary review of redeemed coupons in Q1 2018 by ANZ Bank that the counterfeits bore the same serial numbers and were in $10 denominations only, and were stamped for deposit by the same three retailers.

(Samoa News points out that the activities referred to occurred last year, when the late Taeaoafua Meki Solomona held the post of DHSS director. Taeaoafua passed away on Dec. 11, 2017, while at work, at his DHSS office.)

Based on the court affidavit, it was suspected that Toeava (Taeaoafua’s son-in-law) who works as a DHSS ASNAP Retailer/ Redemption Officer  — tasked with monitoring ASNAP retailer compliance and reconcile Food Stamp coupons redeemed from the bank — “may be involved in the foregoing fraudulent scheme."

Internal inquiries disclosed that coupons issued in FY 2017 and redeemed in October 2017 had been altered to benefit ‘JFL Malae Store’ and ‘Fast By Food Mart’.

The total value of the coupons involved amounted to $94,126 of which most were altered and an audit is currently being conducted to ascertain the actual amount.

According to police records, it was posited that the counterfeits could easily be made using a copier machine.

The two important things to have to produce counterfeit food coupons is a printout from the Talofa system of food coupons on a plain sheet of paper, and the special coupon paper — both are stored and secured in a vault at the ASNAP Issuance Office.

The special coupon paper has a built-in watermark that highlights the word “VOID” when copies are made using a copier machine; hence the need to have the food coupons printed on plain white paper.

During the course of the investigation, police were able to interview others pertaining to the case.

One witness, a DHSS employee, alleges that it was sometime during October 2016 that Toeava approached her and attempted to coax her into giving him blank Food Stamp printing paper under the pretext of ‘using it to generate capital’ for the purpose of starting a business wherein she would be partner.

The witness told the police she refused the offer, basically citing it was illegal for her to do so. But Toeava persisted and after the witness refused to accommodate his request for the next 2-3 days, Toeava eventually gave up.

Kevin was also questioned by police, and told them that it was sometime in May 2017 that he spoke to the late DHSS director Taeaoafua Meki Solomona at his office about a WIC-related problem. According to Kevin, he was a close friend of “Meki Solomona”.

According to the government, Kevin started a car rental business (Malae Rental) with two vehicles in 2016; and it was during the May 2017 meeting that according to Kevin, Solomona asked him how business was going and he told him that his car rental business was not doing too well because Samoan customers keep damaging his cars.

(Samoa News identifies Taeaoafua as Solomona in Kevin’s statement, as the defendant does not refer to the late DHSS director, using his matai title.)

Solomona allegedly then told Kevin he needed his help because ‘Mama’ (Solomona’s wife) wanted to start a rental car business.

According to Kevin's statement to police, Solomona told him that in order for a rental car business to be successful, a Samoan has to own it to ‘discourage’ customers from breaking the cars.

Kevin said ‘okay’ and claims that Solomona referred him to his son-in-law, Toeava. Kevin claims Solomona called his son-in-law and told him to meet Kevin at the Food Stamp parking lot where the two discussed the matter and came to the agreement that Kevin would turn over his business, along with his rental cars to ‘Mama’, and ‘Mama’ would get her own business license relating to the business.

She did so under the name ‘Meki Tavita & Mikaele Rental’.

Included in the terms of the agreement was that after one year of being in operation, Kevin would be given 40% ownership and by Christmas 2017, ‘Mama’ would pay Kevin$8,000 for one of the vehicles and $10,000 for the other.

Not long after ownership of the business was transferred to ‘Mama’, Kevin said Solomona called him and told him they needed three more vehicles for the business. In response, Kevin took out a loan and bought three vehicles totaling $39,000

Kevin told police that sometime in September 2017, Toeava walked in to his store in Vailoa with several food coupons, and showed him food stamps with name(s)/ stamp(s) of other retailers. Kevin said Toeava told him to help ‘white-out’ the names and stamp the name of his business over it and deposit the coupons for redemption, and when the coupons are redeemed, they would split the money ‘50-50’.

Kevin said he was not comfortable with the proposition, but Toeava told him not to worry about it, ‘Papa Meki’ would be notified.

Kevin said he then felt at ease and went along with the fraudulent scheme and they proceeded to alter thousands of dollars ($86,854.00 in $10 denominations) worth of food stamp coupons.

When Kevin took the food stamp coupons to ANZ Bank to deposit, he said the bank refused to redeem the coupons because of the alterations made to it. He said he then called Toeava who told him to wait at the bank, he was on his way.

According to Kevin, Toeava arrived and walked into the bank with what appeared to be a letter in hand. While Toeava was in the bank, Kevin said he waited outside.

Moments later, he said, Toeava exited the bank and told him to get the redemption for the coupons, all of which totaled $86,854.00.

The letter that Toeava furnished, according to the police report, was a forgery because he didn't have the authority to generate one, according to DHSS Director Muavaefaatasi.

Furthermore, the letter was drafted and furnished in the absence of a DHSS letter head, and the ASNAP Assistant Director told police she had no knowledge of the letter.

The letter, noted in the court affidavit, states in part that Kevin's businesses are approved "after our profound investigation in terms of examining the code bar below the coupons… please accept coupons from these vendors only."

The contact person listed on the letter is Toeava.

Since this time, Toeava has been giving thousands of dollars in food stamps to Kevin every two weeks, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit also notes that sometime around the last week of September 2017, the vault in the Food Stamp Issuance Office was renovated.

Prior to renovation, employees relocated its contents including Food Stamp coupon papers to a storage room on the second floor. In the process,  based on police reports, 7- 8 unopened cases of Food Stamp coupon papers were alleged to have sustained mold and water damage to the outside of the boxes and were loaded on the DHSS truck to be burned.

According to the court affidavit, it was reported that Toeava was in the area of the truck that contained said boxes. Each case contained four reams and each ream consists of 500 sheets of food stamp coupon papers, bringing the total to 2,000 sheets per box.

Samoa News will report later this week more on the case against Kevin, Toeava and Vasa, as well as the third retailer’s role — the one that was not arrested.

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