Bagger gets 2 1/2 years in $500,000 stamp fraud


An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun misidentified the workplace of Andrew Littlejohn, a former Baltimore grocery bagger sentenced in a food stamp fraud scheme. He worked at Lafayette Market.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Wrapping up perhaps the largest food stamp fraud case in Maryland history, a federal judge yesterday sentenced a former Baltimore grocery bagger to 2 1/2 years in prison for his role in bilking nearly $500,000 from the stamp program.

Andrew Littlejohn, 33, is the seventh employee of the now-defunct Shop and Save Meats -- which operated meat and produce stalls at Lexington Market -- to be sent to prison. Prosecutors said they also have seized four houses and two cars from the store's owner, Cornell Crawford.

Crawford, 47, who orchestrated the scheme, is serving 41 months at a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

"I would say it's the largest case in Maryland history," said Special Agent James Knorr, who since 1978 has investigated food stamp fraud for the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The culmination of the Maryland case comes on the same day that federal agriculture officials proposed tightening regulations and increasing the monitoring of retail outlets in a new fight to stem fraud within the $27 billion federal food stamp program. In ++ 1994, the program lost $1 billion nationwide to fraud.

"I would like to think this case was a real wake-up call to folks out there," said Maury S. Epner, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Baltimore case. "If we're lucky, we've seen the last of the large-scale frauds."

Prosecutors said Shop and Save Meats workers paid corrupt food stamp holders 60 cents for every dollar's worth of stamps. Crawford and his employees kept 40 cents on every dollar for themselves, prosecutors said.

On several days, a hidden surveillance camera planted by federal investigators filmed hundreds of food stamp holders flocking to the Shop and Save meat stalls to get cash reimbursements for stamps.

The store laundered $1.2 million worth of food stamps between March 1992 and December 1993, meaning that Crawford and his employees realized roughly $480,000 in profits through their scheme, court documents said.

Federal authorities received several complaints from citizens who reported that food stamp recipients -- including many with drug addictions -- were illegally turning in their food stamps for cash. Undercover detectives and the hidden camera were used to derail the illegal business.

Most of the food stamp recipients used their electronic transfer, or "Independence," cards to make the transactions, court records said.

"Someone would go in and say, 'Take $300 off my card.' They'd get 60 cents on the dollar, or $180, paid to them by Crawford. And Crawford would get $300 in his bank account," said Mr. Epner.

Ironically, federal officials say that electronic transfer cards help curb food stamp fraud by giving investigators a way to track it. Prosecutors said that, although the cards were used illegally in the Shop and Save case, future abusers should realize the risks involved.

"It's easy to do but it's also easy to detect," said Mr. Epner, who said many of those who used the cards at Shop and Save have been identified and are being prosecuted locally.

Clerks and grocery baggers, such as Littlejohn, would require the food stamp holders to make a token purchase -- usually $5 worth of meat or produce -- in order to disguise the illicit enterprise that was going on in the meat stalls, prosecutors said.

Littlejohn's attorney, William B. Purpura, attempted to argue at the sentencing hearing before Judge Frederic N. Smalkin that his client had an eighth-grade education and wasn't aware of what he was doing.

"Mr. Littlejohn's role was the most minor. He was being used. He was just bagging the groceries," Mr. Purpura said.

But Judge Smalkin said videotapes showed Littlejohn was not just an innocent grocery clerk. On at least one occasion, he paid cash for the food stamps, court records said.

"I understand he's not the second coming of Albert Einstein and he won't be winning a Nobel prize anytime soon, but I think he knew what was going on," Judge Smalkin said. "I watched him participate on the videotape. . . . His role was certainly not minimal."

The use of food stamps dates to the 1930s when a program was started to help needy families during the Depression. In 1974, Congress required all states to offer food stamps to low-income households. The program now feeds 27 million Americans annually, 80 percent of whom are children.

Agriculture officials said yesterday that they will ask Congress to grant them the authority to more closely screen potential retail outlets, and to seize property valued at more than $5,000 bought with money gained through illegal food stamp transactions.

In Crawford's case, prosecutors seized more than $100,000 in property, including his home in the 3600 block of Klausmier Road in Perry Hall. As part of his plea agreement last fall, he also forfeited rowhouses he owned on Harlem Avenue, North Broadway and East 20th Street in Baltimore, court records said.

He also surrendered his two vehicles to the government.

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