USDA fines Lynnwood grocer $29K for sale of sieves

SEATTLE — A market in Lynnwood is facing a fine of more than $29,000 for letting undercover government workers use federal food assistance to buy items that aren’t eligible for the program.

To wit: a package of metal sieves, two mortar-and-pestle sets, a box of henna and a teapot, all totaling less than $54.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Seattle this week, JD’s Market argues that the $29,214 fine imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture violates the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits excessive fines as well as cruel and unusual punishment. The amount of the fine is determined by federal regulations.

“We got a crazy fine on us,” Raja J. Javed, the husband of one of the owners, said Thursday. “We had a couple of employees, they made a mistake.”

JD’s has been in business 12 years and caters to Muslim residents by selling items they can’t find elsewhere in the neighborhood, such as halal meat, he said.

The store participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal program that provides millions of low-income individuals and families with electronic benefit cards they can use like debit cards to buy food. The store does half its business with program beneficiaries, he said.

From December 2012 to January 2013, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service conducted a “compliance check” at the market to see if the food assistance was being spent appropriately there. Undercover personnel went into the store six times, and on five of those occasions, they used the benefit cards to buy “ineligible” items: an $11 teapot, mortar and pestle sets that cost $13 and $16, an $11 package of sieves, and a $2.49 box of henna.

On the other occasion, the undercover worker asked to get cash back on a benefit card purchase — which is barred by law — but the clerk refused.

A spokeswoman for the USDA did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

JD’s filed an administrative appeal of the fine, arguing that it was excessive for a first offense and noting that it had taken steps to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. Those steps included firing the employees who allowed the sales, retraining its other workers, and installing a new point-of-sale system designed to flag purchases barred by the food-assistance program.

A USDA review officer upheld the fine last month. She pointed out that federal law mandates that first-time offenses result in a six-month suspension of participation in the program. However, if officials determine that such a suspension would pose a hardship to low-income customers who rely on the store, the six-month suspension can be converted to a fine.

The amount of the fine was calculated based on how much business the store conducts through the food-assistance program, said the market’s lawyer, Kenneth Kagan of Seattle. The fine handed to JD’s was disproportionate to the offense, he said.

“It’s a lot of money. It would be devastating to my clients,” he said.

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