SALEM — The owner of two small convenience stores in Salem and Lynn will be sentenced next month to two years in jail by a judge who said yesterday that Peter Jhonny Limat’s breach of the public trust warrants time behind bars.
“The money that pays for food stamps doesn’t come out of thin air,” said Salem Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead. “It comes out of the pockets of working people, and it goes to people who supposedly cannot afford the necessities of life.”
But many of the customers at Limat’s two stores — Boston Street Market in Salem and J&M Mini Mart in Lynn — weren’t using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “SNAP,” cards to buy food, Limat admitted earlier this month.
Instead, prosecutors said, Limat, 38, of Lynn, would let people use the cards like they were using an ATM and then take half the money for himself. A customer who wanted $50, for example, would let Limat charge $100 to the card, which he would report as food sales. Each of them would get $50 in cash. The Department of Agriculture would then reimburse Limat for the full amount, sending the money directly to his bank account.
In fact, many of the cardholders simply left their cards with Limat, coming by to collect cash when they knew their benefit would be refreshed each month, a prosecutor said.
Over the course of a year, Limat conducted some $800,000 in food stamp transactions, prosecutor Phil Mallard told the judge earlier this month. More than half those transactions — a half-million dollars worth — were for purported food sales of more than $100, something Mallard argued was practically impossible given the limited inventory of both stores.
Mallard and the judge conceded it’s probably impossible to determine how many of those transactions were fraudulent, aside from the $2,100 collected by an undercover agent during an investigation. But Limat was earning enough to generate an income tax bill of $83,000 in 2011, according to a tax return his attorney, Geoffrey Nathan, submitted during yesterday’s sentencing hearing.