OCONTO - An Oconto County judge has fined a convenience store owner $2,000 for using food stamps to purchase soda and energy drinks to sell at his business.
"You might have made a few hundred dollars off of it, if that," Judge Michael T. Judge told Alexander Rhode at his Jan. 11 sentencing hearing. "And look what you got yourself into."
The theft came light in July 2019, after Oconto County fraud investigator Kim Reifsteck was notified that a food benefit card was used to purchase only beverages from Woodman's in Appleton. Security cameras captured images of Rhode and his girlfriend's sister rolling two carts of beverages costing more than $351 out of the store, according to the criminal complaint.
Reifsteck also discovered Rhode's card was used to purchase nearly $127 in beverages from Walmart in Shawano. The April sale was confirmed by store video.
Reifsteck additionally found that Rhode's girlfriend, Tami Graves, who also worked at the convenience store, used her FoodShare card to buy $144 in beverages at the Shawano Walmart on May 14. Rhode was with her at the time, security video showed, the complaint said.
In their application for FoodShare benefits, Rhode and Graves each claimed they were the only adult in their home, even though they lived together, Reifsteck found. Graves always claimed in application updates that just she and two children were in the home.
Graves admitted to Reifsteck that she lives with Rhode and to using her card and Rhode's card to buy food for their household and the store. In a written statement, Rhode said he should have been more careful purchasing items for his home versus the store.
Rhode and Graves, both 33 and from Suring, were charged with misstating facts in their food stamp applications and knowingly trafficking food stamps.
They both pleaded no contest to the latter charge, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison and two years of extended supervision. As part of a plea agreement, the other felony count was dismissed, though it could be considered by Judge at sentencing.
Assistant District Attorney Lisa Rowe recommended Rhode serve 90 days in jail as a condition of two years of probation, saying Rhode's "egregious" conduct deserves consequences for diminishing confidence in welfare programs.
"When you see someone like this where someone is abusing the system, it gives the whole thing a bad name and it takes away from the people who really do have starving children and really do need medicine for their kids, or really do need the benefits because they truly are that poor," Rowe said.
Defense attorney Amy Menzel, however, described her client as "the working poor" as the store has not been profitable, though he's since taken on additional duties.
"He goes to work every day and does the best that he can to get by," she said.
Menzel said she didn't think Rhode was purposely trying to defraud the state when he filled out his application for food stamps - which he was offered after going on the public health insurance - as the definitions of a household in welfare laws and family court differ and can be confusing.
Rhode didn't have a premeditated plan to steal from the state, she said, adding that two consequences of his actions were a lifetime ban on receiving benefits - of which he's received less than $5,000 - and the humiliation of being charged.
"He was publicly shamed for what happened here, and that was a difficult thing for him and his family to deal with," Menzel said.
She recommended 18 months with no jail time, noting he has no past criminal convictions and had acknowledged the seriousness of his behavior.
Rhode, who has already paid full restitution of $1,064, told Judge he was "deeply sorry."
"I feel horrible, just absolutely horrible," he said.
Judged ordered the $2,000 fine, which with court costs and the DNA surcharge totals $3,078, plus $84 in service fees, to be paid back at the rate of $250 per month.
Judge also ordered Rhode to serve 50 hours of community service and 18 months on probation. But he chose to not impose a jail term, though he said Rhode knew what he was doing.
"I think it's about the money, and that's why you're going to be paying a hefty fine," he said.
Judge sentenced Graves on Dec. 13 to five days in jail, two years of probation, 50 hours of community service and pay $622 in court costs, DNA surcharge and service charges.
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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Suring man fined for using food stamps to buy soda for his store