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Complaints of FEMA aid fraud stymied by runaround
From Miami to Winter Haven to Starke, Floridians have accused their neighbors, colleagues and even their own relatives of taking advantage of the hurricanes by collecting disaster assistance they didn't deserve.
Since Hurricane Charley slammed the state Aug. 13, the first of four last season, more than 110 people throughout Florida have contacted the state Attorney General's Office to report fraud against the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They told of applicants pouring water on their belongings, collecting checks for furniture they didn't own and claiming damage to appliances that weren't working before the storms.
The attorney general did not investigate and referred the complaints to the inspector general for FEMA's umbrella agency. Contacted by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, more than a dozen of those who filed fraud complaints, including an Alachua County sheriff's detective, described a "runaround" that included hours of phone calls and being bounced from one government agency to another.
"Nobody has done anything, nothing, zip," said Candace Gallant of Palm Beach County. "I've been so mad, how nobody wants to hear about it."
Gallant called local and state police, the attorney general and four different numbers at FEMA to report by name three neighbors in her Singer Island apartment complex who she said boasted of collecting disaster assistance for damaged belongings. The tenants rented furnished apartments.
"It wasn't their property to claim," Gallant said. "They were going around telling all the neighbors how to file a claim. I was furious. There are so many people who are truly deserving."
Fraud inquiries have so far focused on Miami-Dade, where FEMA's payments of $30.8 million to residents of a county spared any hurricane-force conditions has touched off a U.S. Senate committee investigation. But the attorney general complaints reveal cheating throughout the state, and applicants getting away with it.
In Lake Hamilton, in central Florida, Betty Holmes and her husband reported that their tenant received FEMA money for appliances he didn't own.
"We have a stove in there. It was already not working. They paid him for the stove," Holmes told the newspaper. "He said he had a microwave. He didn't have one. I know there was no damage, not even a window broken."
In Starke, in north Florida, a caller told the attorney general that residents were "reporting damages to their home and belongings that were not affected by the hurricane," her complaint says.
"People got new clothes, new toys, new furniture, and they didn't lose anything," she told the Sun-Sentinel. She did not want to be named because some of the recipients work for her.
"It was the FEMA workers themselves that were directing them what to say, how to say it, what to report," she said. "One person was asked about a washer and dryer. They said, `We didn't have one.' The inspector said, `You do now.'"
She said she was "incensed that people were getting things they didn't deserve. They were making out like it was Christmas."
Fraud and overpayments typically account for 3 percent of the money FEMA awards local governments and individuals in a disaster, but it is running about 1 percent so far in Florida, where the agency has handed out more than $2 billion, FEMA Director Michael Brown said Friday. The complaints to the attorney general did not surprise Brown.
"If you assume that half of them are true, we're still below, well below, that 3 percent average in a disaster," he said. "That's a pretty darn good track record."
Of the complaints to the attorney general, two came from Miami-Dade.
One man identified only as Oscar said FEMA had approved $5,000 to the mother of his children "but she didn't have any damage," the complaint says.
A manager of a housing complex in a low-income area reported that tenants suffered no damage, but still collected disaster checks. "No one ever followed up with me," he said, declining to give his name for fear of retribution.
"After I called, I heard of many other instances of claims and checks received," he said. "For some time, it was daily. There were some residents who didn't get money who were resentful. It was so widely known, the fraudulent payments."
In Winter Haven, in central Florida, apartment manager Naomi Rose told the attorney general her tenants were "filing absurd claims" with FEMA. "One family poured buckets of water on their furniture to claim water damage," the complaint says.
In Flagler County, in northeast Florida, Christopher McDonald told the attorney general that someone he knew got $18,000 from FEMA and "bought a Harley Davidson."
"Caller believes that there is fraud going on and no one seems to care," the complaint says.
The complaints detail frustration in reporting possible fraud. "Trying to contact FEMA and they do not answer," an anonymous caller said.
James Rogers in Volusia County in northeast Florida complained that "all he gets is a recording when he calls the FEMA fraud line."
Even Robert Gaff, a detective with the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, got "the runaround," his complaint says. Gaff was calling about a Gainesville resident, Cheryl Murphy, whom he believed had collected $16,491 illegitimately from FEMA for damage to a mobile home she no longer owned, according to Sheriff's Office reports.
Neither the new owner nor the tenant, whose belongings were damaged when a tree fell on the home, could collect FEMA assistance because of Murphy's payment, the records say.
Gaff said in an interview that he tried for several days to alert FEMA officials, who kept telling him to call other numbers.
"No one seemed to know for sure who should be looking into this," he said. "I said, `Well, I can certainly look into it.' Yes, it's FEMA money, but it's also your money and my money."
Gaff recommended Murphy be charged with theft by fraud, but prosecutors declined to file charges. The new owner had never filed a transfer of title and "she still was the legal owner," said Spencer Mann, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office in Gainesville. "There simply wasn't evidence."
The sheriff's report quotes Murphy as saying she had sold the home, but she denied that Friday. In a telephone interview, Murphy said she still owned the trailer at the time of the storm but had moved out to remodel. She said she legitimately collected FEMA assistance, which sheriff's reports say included $5,100 for home repair, $10,437 for personal belongings and $954 in housing and rental assistance.
Sally Kestin can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4510.