BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — SALEM — An average purchase by the user of an electronic benefits “food stamp” card, shopping at a Stop & Shop was about $33 back in 2010 and 2011.
But at the tiny Boston Street Market in Salem, more than 80 percent of those transactions were for at least $100 — despite the store’s limited inventory, a prosecutor said yesterday.
In fact, between that store and J&M Mini Mart in Lynn, there were more than $800,000 in such transactions in a year, prosecutor Phil Mallard told a Salem Superior Court judge yesterday.
Yesterday, the owner of both of those stores, Peter Jhonny Limat, 38, of Lynn, pleaded guilty to electronic funds transfer fraud during a hearing in Salem Superior Court. The prosecutor is asking a judge to send Limat to prison for three to five years.
Mallard described how an undercover investigator visited the two stores more than a dozen times in 2011, and was able to obtain cash with the card, which was designated as a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or “SNAP” card, good only for the purchase of food. The program is the successor to the food stamps program.
Mallard said the investigator was able to get cash at the two stores, which then recorded the transactions as food sales. The store would be paid a “fee” from the cash proceeds.
Most of the transactions were for amounts ranging from $100 to $200, said the prosecutor.
The total amount paid to the undercover investigator was just over $2,000, said Mallard.
The volume of activity at the two stores suggested that the undercover investigator wasn’t the only one using the businesses as an ATM, Mallard said.
But when it came time to admit to the allegations yesterday, Limat, in a thick Haitian accent, appeared to quarrel with the facts.
“People would say give me cash, I don’t have time to go to the ATM,” Limat told Judge Howard Whitehead.
“I didn’t know it was a crime,” Limat said.
His attorney, Geoffrey Nathan, is urging Whitehead to impose probation for his client, a suggestion that has already been rejected by two other judges.
To bolster his case, Nathan called Limat’s wife, who had come to court with their teenage autistic son and their pastor, to testify. She told Whitehead that she has no idea who will care for their children if Limat goes to prison, since she works full time.
Under questioning by Nathan, she said the couple is behind on their mortgage, which has a balance of $17,000, on the Lynn home they purchased in 2005.
Under questioning by the prosecutor, however, she also revealed that the couple owns a BMW.
The pastor of Limat’s church also took the stand to support Limat’s bid for probation, telling the judge that Limat is a Sunday School teacher who tithes (a religious practice of giving 10 percent of one’s income to the church).
But he was forced to acknowledge that Limat typically gives the church $25,000 a year as a tithe, and that over the past decade he had donated $250,000.
After hearing from the witnesses, Whitehead said he wants more information about Limat and his finances before deciding what sentence to impose.
A further hearing is scheduled for Dec. 23.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.