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Records detail how FEMA was cheated on hurricane claims
Miranda Woodard moved out of her south Miami-Dade County home before Hurricane Frances hit last fall but still collected $12,359 from the federal government for damages she claimed at her former address, authorities say.
"She did not own the home, ... and her personal property was neither located at that address nor damaged as a result of the hurricane," court records say.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Woodard of Homestead $726 for rental assistance, $5,100 for "home repair" and $6,533 for personal belongings. The government paid Woodard to replace two air conditioners, a washer, dryer, range, refrigerator, microwave, fan, radio, phone, television, vacuum, twin bed, dining table and chairs, toys, and school books and supplies, according to FEMA claims records.
Woodard is one of 14 Miami-Dade residents indicted this week on federal charges of wire and mail fraud and filing false claims to obtain FEMA grants. In Washington on Thursday, legislators pointed to the arrests as evidence of waste in a federal program meant to help victims of natural disasters rebuild.
"These indictments heighten our concern that the FEMA disaster relief program may not contain sufficient safeguards to ensure that the integrity of the program -- and ultimately taxpayers -- are protected," said a statement from Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "Fraudulent claims that make it successfully through the system are symptoms of ineffective controls, inefficient processing, and wasteful spending."
The committee is investigating allegations of fraud and waste in FEMA aid following last year's hurricanes. Staff conducting the investigation visited Florida last week, but a committee spokeswoman declined to comment on the findings so far.
In the House, U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Palm Beach Gardens, wrote Thursday to the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, requesting hearings "as soon as possible on [FEMA's] disaster response procedures and priorities."
"We can't get answers to a lot of our questions," said Foley, who was joined by four other Florida members of Congress in calling for the hearings.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. and chairman of the subcommittee, will consider the request after he returns from a trip to Pensacola this week to discuss FEMA's response to the hurricanes, said subcommittee Staff Director Dan Matthews.
In Miami-Dade, the criminal investigation into FEMA payments continues. As of last week, FEMA had handed out $30.9 million to 12,872 Miami-Dade residents for damages caused by Hurricane Frances even though the eye of the storm passed three counties to the north.
Authorities arrested 12 of the 14 on Wednesday. Ten were released that day on bond, promising to return to court March 11. Two more appeared in court Thursday and pleaded not guilty. Two were still at large.
A spokesman for the federal Public Defender's Office, which will represent the defendants, declined to comment.
Woodard, 35, could not be reached Thursday. She is on probation for a 2001 public assistance fraud conviction, court records show.
Miami-Dade property records show that the house Woodard claimed as her residence in the 500 block of Southwest 11th Avenue is owned by Willie Mae Robinson. A former neighbor, who asked not to be identified, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Robinson died several years ago, and Woodard, who was living in the home, moved out.
"Nobody has lived there for years," she said. "The house was just a damn disaster anyway. There was no damage due to any hurricane."
Federal prosecutors will not say whether more arrests are planned or provide details of the fraudulent claims. The Sun-Sentinel matched assistance amounts listed in the indictments to FEMA claims by ZIP code in Miami-Dade.
Quiana Riggins of Homestead told FEMA a sewer backup caused by the storm damaged her belongings, court records say.
What Riggins didn't say is that "weeks prior to Hurricane Frances a sewer backup had damaged her personal property and residence and that her residence had been condemned by the city of Homestead," according to the indictment.
The city's aging sewer system ruined some homes last summer, Victor Straker, Homestead building inspector, said in an interview Thursday night.
"Whatever condemnations were done had nothing to do with the hurricane," he said. "We in south Dade didn't get any damage at all from any hurricanes."
On Sept. 25, FEMA mailed Riggins a check for $24,754.79, court records say.
Riggins could not be reached Thursday.
FEMA gave Equilla Smith $18,323.62 to replace belongings she claimed were ruined by Frances, court records say.
"She knew that the hurricane did not cause damage to her personal property," the indictment says.
Smith, 28, could not be reached Thursday.
She received $2,878 in rental assistance and $15,446 for personal property, claims records show. A contracted inspector FEMA pays to verify losses signed off on damages to an air conditioner, dryer, dining table and chairs, microwave, phone, $7,299 in clothing and more than $8,000 in furnishings, according to the records.
Smith of South Miami, who said in court Wednesday that she worked at McDonald's, claimed she lost 15 uniforms in the storm. FEMA concluded they were worth $7,500, though it is unclear in the claims records how much she received for them.
Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek and Staff Writer Ann W. O'Neill contributed to this report.
Sally Kestin can be reached at skestin@sun-sentinel. com or 954-356-4510.