Convenience store owners indicted on food stamp fraud charges

Jacksonville husband, wife face 20 years in prison if convicted

By Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Nick Jones - Digital producer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A husband and wife who own two Jacksonville convenience stores were indicted on federal food stamp fraud charges, the Department of Justice announced Monday.

The federal indictment charges Russell Leroy Dotson, 61, and Maria Luisa Dotson, 64, both of Jacksonville, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They each face up to 20 years in prison if conviction. 

The federal government is seeking a monetary judgment of $886,130, which federal prosecutors said the couple made through a food stamp fraud scheme.

According to the indictment, the Dotsons made an initial appearance Monday in federal court and were released on a $5,000 bond. 

At the Dotsons' Westside home, Maria Dotson declined to speak to the I-TEAM on Tuesday about the allegations detailed in the indictment. 

But at the couple's Westside convenience store, her husband was a little more forthcoming. 

"I have every intention of staying opening," Russell Dotson said. "I haven't gone anywhere. I plan on being here."

He told the I-TEAM that he's owned two Asmarina Food Mart locations in Jacksonville for more than eight years. He declined to comment further on the indictment. 

"I don't really know. It was the first I knew about it yesterday and I've got a lawyer looking into it," Russel Dotson said Tuesday. "There's nothing I can say for the news. I'd say no comment at this moment because I know nothing more at this point."

After opening the convenience stores, according to the indictment, the couple applied to and received approval from the Food and Nutrition Service, an agency of U.S. Department of Agriculture, to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. 

After receiving approval, the indictment states, the Dotsons trained their employees on ways to commit food stamp fraud.

The indictment states the Dotsons instructed their employees to ring up fraudulent transactions to make it appear SNAP recipients had purchased eligible food products from the store using their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. 

The indictment goes on to state that over 27 months, the employees gave the SNAP recipients cash representing approximately one-half of the amount of the fraudulent transaction, while the Dotsons kept the remainder of the money. 

This indictment is part of a long-term investigation into SNAP fraud occurring at the two Asmarina Food Mart locations. To date, 10 others pleaded guilty and were sentenced, or are pending sentencing, for their roles in the scheme, prosecutors said.

The Dotsons are set for arraignment on Sept. 24.

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