Food stamp fraud suspects plead not guilty

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Two men who allegedly conspired to defraud the food stamp program of large sums of money appeared in U.S. District Court in Lake Charles on Thursday morning where they pleaded not guilty.

Craig Michael Nash and Hillary Nash III, along with Rosalyn Mary Hilliard, were charged in a 26 count indictment alleging that they engaged in fictional transactions with customers to defraud and get money from the Food Stamp Program.

According to the indictment, many of the alleged illegal transactions took place Goodfella's Grocery at 1217 Mill Street.  According to the indictment,  the scheme came to light when the U.S. Department of Agriculture engaged in undercover transactions at Goodfella's along with a second store location described in the indictment as having a mailing address of 3416 Fifth Street.

The Nash brothers allegedly engaged in a scheme to access customers food stamp benefits getting cash they weren't entitled to while at times allegedly giving food stamp recipients cash, alcohol and tobacco --which is not allowed as U.S. Attorney for the Western District Stephanie Finley explains. "It was millions, millions of dollars that they redeemed in this program. It was a significant amount of money and what we're seeing here is abuse of the system."

The indictment says Craig Michael Nash is the store owner.  He and his brother Hillary face charges including conspiracy, food stamp fraud and wire fraud. They are represented by attorney Todd Clemons who says they are innocent. "My clients are hard working, tax paying citizens. They are entrepreneurs. They come from a family of entrepreneurs. All they've ever known is hard work. They've worked both since they were in middle school and they worked hard and vigorously ever since. So it's my pleasure to represent them and I just want to see that they are very well represented against these charges and that's our goal."

Besides defending his clients Clemons says he plans to protect their homes and other property the government plans to take if they are convicted including close to $3 million in a bank account and cars which have been seized.  Said Clemons, "The property on Tenth Street, my clients purchased that property in 1999 and it's my understanding this conspiracy allegedly started in January 2007. Most of these vehicles are ten years old, eleven years old so they may be quote luxury vehicles but that doesn't mean that they're very, very valuable vehicles."

Yet Finley why the government is allowed to seize the property if the Nashes and Hilliard are convicted.  "The forfeiture count allows the government to seize those items because they have been used in the transactions of criminal activity or it's facilitating that criminal activity."

If convicted of the offenses alleged in the indictment each man could spending up to five years in prison on the conspiracy and each food stamp counts and up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud.

The Nash's sister, Rosalyn Mary Hilliard, pleaded not guilty earlier. Her attorney says she was a store clerk and not an owner.  A scheduling conference with magistrate Judge Kathy Kay has been set for June 28th.  That's when a trial date is expected to be set.

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