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Suspicions don't slow Miami-Dade storm relief
For two months, elected leaders from Tallahassee to Washington have demanded investigations while expressing outrage that Miami-Dade County residents may have fraudulently collected millions in Hurricane Frances aid.
But no one shut off the pipeline.
Since the South Florida Sun-Sentinel first reported in early October on government aid going to a county largely spared from the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has poured another $8 million into Miami-Dade, bringing the total as of last week to $28.6 million. The agency approved almost 3,000 additional claims during those eight weeks.
"That is mind-boggling," said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton. "The idea that FEMA would continue to pay millions of dollars after the Sun-Sentinel report is even more upsetting than the initial mispayments themselves."
The findings should have alerted FEMA to what U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw said appears to be "massive misconduct."
"I would think that they would be a little bit nervous about paying out claims down in Miami-Dade, where there was no hurricane," said Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. "That makes no sense."
The amount sent to Miami-Dade residents is more than double the $12.2 million awarded in Broward County, which was closer to the storm's eye, and is still $1.6 million higher than Martin County's awards in direct hits from two hurricanes.
FEMA is following a "time-proven process" of distributing aid first and scrutinizing claims later, said Brad Gair, FEMA deputy federal coordinating officer involved in the Florida aid distribution.
"We're continuing to deliver the aid in a way that our regulations, our guidelines tell us to," he said. "We haven't made any sweeping changes in the way we do business."
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, wants to know why not.
"They're the ones cutting the checks. They can just stop," said Hastings' legislative director, David Goldenberg. "It's extremely disappointing."
FEMA director Michael Brown declined requests by the Sun-Sentinel for an interview but has continued to publicly defend the claims.
"Anyone who received money in Miami-Dade County deserved that money and received that money rightfully under the law," Brown told CNN on Tuesday.
On Friday, however, the deputy inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's umbrella agency, said his office is now investigating fraud allegations in Miami-Dade and expects arrests later this month.
Since Hurricane Frances hit on Labor Day, 100 miles to the north, 22,090 Miami-Dade residents have applied for assistance and more than half have collected.
A newspaper analysis of claims paid in the county found that FEMA inspectors attributed damage to "ice/snow," sewer backups and tornadoes. Officials said they knew of no sewer problems, tornadoes, snow or ice.
FEMA paid for at least one funeral and thousands of television sets, microwaves and other appliances in areas where government leaders, landlords and store owners knew of no damage. Over half the aid went to low-income neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Opa-locka.
As FEMA checks started arriving, word spread and neighbors traded tips on how to file successful applications, the newspaper found. Residents called FEMA aid "free money."
FEMA, meanwhile, continues to send money to the county at the rate of about $500,000 a week.
The agency even included Miami-Dade in a statewide extension of the deadline to apply for aid, giving residents another six weeks -- until Dec. 31.
"The whole idea of being practical comes into this," Shaw said. "Once that money is out the door, you're going to have a hard time getting that money back."
Federal investigators have verified some damage in Miami-Dade, but it's too soon to tell the extent of fraudulent applications, said Richard Skinner, deputy inspector for Homeland Security, in an interview Friday.
Claims paid more recently are legitimate, he said.
"It's my understanding ... [that] the money that's flowing out now, those claims have been validated," Skinner said. "The inspectors have in fact validated there was a legitimate loss. It's those that occurred in the first 30 to 60 days that is our concern. Those funds went out and the validation followed."
FEMA awarded at least $947,000 in "expedited" housing assistance in Miami-Dade based on applicants' word over the telephone that the storm forced them to relocate, the Sun-Sentinel analysis found. Some residents got rental assistance when their only verified loss was a broken TV or radio.
"Certainly, having damage to an appliance does not seem to be something that normally would derive rental assistance," Gair said. "I'd have to look at the cases individually."
FEMA awarded expedited assistance throughout Florida in an effort to more quickly help hurricane victims displaced from their homes.
"We're committed as an agency to erring on the side of taking care of the victims, so if some expedited assistance goes out to people who may not have genuinely needed it, that's just something we're willing to accept as an agency," Gair said.
The practice makes sense in areas that "got hammered," Shaw said. "But there's absolutely no logic paying out that kind of money in an area where wind gusts didn't even reach hurricane force. Common sense tells you that in areas that are very questionable, you better get validation first."
Federal investigators are looking into the expedited assistance in Miami-Dade, Skinner said.
The inspector general team has been in Florida since Hurricane Charley struck Aug. 13 and will likely stay for one to two years, reviewing hurricane assistance claims filed by residents, local and state governments, and nonprofit organizations, Skinner said.
"We've more or less surveyed the entire operation," he said. "For the short term, we're going to focus all of our resources on the Miami-Dade situation. We don't want it to get any worse."
Wexler applauded the investigation, calling it "positive news that the federal government is responding appropriately -- finally."
Shaw sent a letter to FEMA director Brown after the newspaper first reported Oct. 10 on the Miami-Dade claims, saying he was "disgusted" and asking for an investigation. Two days later, Brown said he had instructed his staff to "dig into" the claims, but FEMA has yet to provide an accounting of the money.
Wexler, Hastings and two Republican members of Congress, Tom Feeney of Oviedo and Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville, asked last week for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, saying the Miami-Dade claims raised concerns about how FEMA has distributed hurricane aid throughout Florida. A decision by the GAO is expected within two weeks.
Shaw is also awaiting a response from the Homeland Security Committee on his request for a congressional hearing into the claims.
Legislators say the problems should already be obvious.
"I, for one, do not need an investigation to know there was no snow and ice damage in Miami-Dade," Wexler said. "Logic still dictates that areas that were largely unaffected by the storms, flags should be raised when significant amounts of money are being paid to residents of those areas."
If the government does not act quickly, even more people will file fraudulent claims the next time a hurricane hits, Shaw said. "This stuff has got to be stopped," he said.
Staff writer Megan O'Matz contributed to this report.
Sally Kestin can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4510.