Suspects in what the state attorney general said was a...

Suspects in what the state attorney general said was a scheme to steal nearly $1 million by turning food benefits earmarked for superstorm Sandy victims into cash are walked out of the Seventh Precinct in Shirley on July 29, 2014. Credit: Ed Betz

An illegal scheme to turn food benefits into cash netted two Suffolk convenience store owners nearly $1 million before they were caught, the state attorney general said Tuesday.

The Mastic Supermarket Corp., one of its employees, and seven people who used their SNAP benefit cards to get cash instead of food also were charged in the 25-count indictment. All were arraigned Tuesday afternoon.

To help impoverished individuals after superstorm Sandy, the federal government set aside an extra 50 percent of SNAP benefits, which replaced food stamps.

"It's unconscionable that anyone would steal from a program designed to provide nutritional assistance to New Yorkers in need, especially those harmed by Hurricane Sandy," Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a statement.

Store co-owners Manjeet Chadha, 48, of North Bellmore and Sajjad Rashid, 43, of Rocky Point and their employee, Haricharan Malhotra, 41, of Mastic, were charged with felony grand larceny, misuse of food stamps and falsifying business records, officials said.

Rashid and Malhotra each face up to 15 years in prison. Chadha faces up to 7 years behind bars.

Rashid, Chadha and Malhotra processed fictitious SNAP transactions for the seven cardholders, and split the cash value of the fake purchases with them, the attorney general's office said.

Three of the cardholders face prison sentences of up to 7 years if convicted of two felonies, grand larceny and misuse of food stamps. The other four, charged with two lesser felonies of grand larceny and misuse of food stamps, each face up to 4 years behind bars.

Schneiderman also said he filed a civil suit seeking $973,000 in restitution from the store, its owners and their employee.

The Mastic store rang up more than $564,000 in SNAP benefits in just 10 months, while nearby stores totaled $14,000 to $24,000, officials said.

The three cardholders facing the more serious charges are Romie Harris, 45, of Mastic, Kristine Hensley Austin, 25, of Mastic Beach and Dawn Murphy, 33, of Mastic Beach. The other four cardholders are Brittany Sardella, 26, of Hampton Bays, David Cantwell, 46, of Southold, Carolyn Gray, 25, of Mastic and Theresa Hubbard, 51, of Mastic Beach, officials said.

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