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Louisiana grocery workers plead guilty in $7 million food aid fraud

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Three workers at a Louisiana grocery store pleaded guilty this week to participating in a $7 million scheme to exchange food assistance benefits for cigarettes and cash, federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.

The fraud scheme, which involved both Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women Infant and Children (WIC) benefits, was run out of Dee's, a small neighborhood grocery store in the northern Louisiana city of Monroe, prosecutors said.

Store employees Angela Woods, 27, and Willie Mae Woods-Jackson, 42, along with owner Kimberlia Harris, 45, each pleaded guilty this week to one count of criminal conspiracy. They each face up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Another worker at the store, Juanita Woods, 36, pleaded guilty last month to one count of theft of government property, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.

The scheme, in which the store workers accepted SNAP and WIC benefits in exchange for lesser amounts of cash as well as for cigarettes and other ineligible items, persisted from 2008 until earlier this year, prosecutors said.

Fraud associated with SNAP benefits, formerly known as the Food Stamp program, has dropped from about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent between 2006 and 2008, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Walsh)

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