Federal authorities pursuing fraud allegations anticipate arrests by the end of the year in Miami-Dade County, where residents have collected millions in disaster assistance for Hurricane Frances, an official in charge of the investigation said Friday.
"We're going to prosecute each and every one," said Richard L. Skinner, deputy inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security. "I expect there will be some people getting Christmas surprises."
Seven investigators from the inspector general's office are now in Miami-Dade and "that may grow," Skinner said. They're also "working very closely" with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and have met with officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami and local prosecutors, he said.
U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Palm Beach Gardens, praised the investigation as the "proper response to what we were alleging was serious, significant fraud."
"People are outraged," he said. "It is public funds ... You better find a way to bring these people to justice."
The inspector general team is focusing on Miami-Dade as a result of a series of reports in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel detailing how thousands of residents collected hurricane relief even though disaster never struck the county. As of Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had sent $28.6 million to 12,290 Miami-Dade applicants.
"What we're trying to do is validate what you're reporting," Skinner said. "We do have allegations of fraud, allegations that have come to us from sources other than what we've been reading in the paper."
Skinner declined to elaborate on the allegations or say how widespread the fraud might be.
"It's too soon to tell," he said.
After Hurricane Frances struck Labor Day weekend, FEMA sent aid to Miami-Dade residents for new cars, wardrobes and thousands of televisions and appliances -- even though the storm brought wind and rain no worse than a thunderstorm, and local governments, schools, and landmarks reported only a few trees and power lines down. FEMA also paid for dental bills and a funeral, even though the county recorded no storm-related deaths.
The inspector general team has verified some damage in Miami-Dade. "We've found houses without roofs," Skinner said, noting, however, that the damage was nowhere near as severe as in areas farther north where the storm made landfall.
Skinner said he did not know the location of the damage in Miami-Dade or whether the actual losses come close to the millions FEMA has paid out in claims.
"That's what we're going to find out," he said. "Right now, our target is in the next 90 days to have an answer to that. We'll have a firm grip on the extent of fraudulent applications."
The team also will examine how the claims were approved and recommend changes "if in fact it's as large a problem as everyone suggests," Skinner said. "Let's put some controls and fixes so it doesn't happen again."
U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, commended the investigation but said he will continue to press for a congressional hearing of the Miami-Dade payouts.
"The reported cases that I've read in the Sun-Sentinel certainly would indicate there's a lot more than smoke there," he said. "There's some massive fraud."
Tom Gallagher, Florida's chief financial officer whose office investigates insurance fraud, predicted that getting results would be difficult.
In an analysis of more than 10,000 claims FEMA paid in Miami-Dade as of mid-October, the newspaper found that more than half the aid went to residents of predominantly poor neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Opa-locka.
"Are you going to go get the TVs back? Are you going to go get the money back that paid for the funeral?" Gallagher asked. "I guarantee you that money's not around anymore. Are you going to put them all in jail?"
Skinner acknowledged it won't be easy.
"But I think we have a responsibility to make an attempt," he said. "They can be arrested and convicted and they will carry that conviction."
Under federal law, filing a false disaster claim is a felony punishable upon conviction by up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
After Hurricane Andrew hit Miami-Dade in 1992, investigations by the inspector general brought charges against about 100 people, Skinner said.
Some got "just a slap on the wrist; others were required to pay court fees," Skinner said. "All of them were required to pay the money back."
Investigators will pursue charges against people who tried to cheat the government on Frances relief "to the extent resources are available," he said. "We want people to know if you made a fraudulent claim, you will be arrested and prosecuted."
Sally Kestin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4510.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times