FORT MYERS, Fla --- Blue ribbon steak and seafood owner Michael Schnatter says he's innocent of the crimes he pleaded guilty to Wednesday.
As part of his plea deal, Schnatter plead guilty to ten counts of food assistance fraud, and will spend 3 years in prison.
Schnatter wouldn't go on camera, but tells WINK News he took the fall for a former contractor with his company.
He says that contractor was responsible for the illegal dealings, but went to police as a confidential informant, and turned the crimes around on him.
But Lee County deputies said in 2013, a month long undercover investigation found Schnatter would offer cash for electronic benefit transfer cards, at half of what they were worth.
The State Attorney's Office convicted eight others in the scheme, called Operation Crooked Stamp by deputies.
The office says some of these people were selling benefits meant to feed their children.
The USDA could strip them of their state benefits for life.
The operation cost taxpayers thousands of dollars, according to a state spokesman.
"It drains resources, monetary resources from the supplemental nutritional assistance program. It drains resources of law enforcement," said Jack Heacock, director of the Department of Public Assistance Fraud for Florida.
And Heacock says this kind of crime is all too common.
"$5.8 billion dollars was spent in fl for the snap program. the federal government estimates 1.3% of all snap benefits are being trafficked," said Heacock.
Heacock says the state is cracking down on those who cheat the system.
"Doubled the number, not just of investigations, but double the cases that end up sent to the SAO for statewide prosecution," said Heacock.
Schnatter originally faced more than 30 counts of fraud, he plead guilty to ten.
He says that's because he was only being charged for the transactions the confidential informant initiated.
Schnatter can turn himself in on July 7th.
Below are the other defendants convicted in this case, and what they have been sentenced:
Michael Schnatter: 3 years florida state prison to be followed by 2 years probation
Michael Horne: 18 mos DOC
Josh Garcia: 270 days Lee County Jail
Thomas Johnson:150 days Lee County jail
Ruth Carr: 364 days Lee county jail, followed by one year of probation
Sarah Asher: 18 months probation
Willie Williams: 36 months probation
Joseph Sheets: 11 months 29 days probation
Jane Chapman: 180 days Lee County Jail