Government inspectors entrusted to enter disaster victims' homes and verify damage claims include criminals with records for embezzlement, drug dealing and robbery, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation has found.
Federal officials have pointed to the inspectors as their primary defense against accusations of widespread fraud for their payout of more than $31 million in Hurricane Frances disaster aid in Miami-Dade -- a county spared hurricane-force winds.
During a January news conference, the Federal Emergency Management Agency insisted there was damage in Miami-Dade County.
"We know this for several reasons," said Dan Craig, FEMA's director of recovery programs. "Foremost among them is that FEMA's contract inspectors personally inspect and verify the claims. Our contract inspectors are our first line of accountability."
That first line of accountability, the newspaper found, includes:
James A. DeWan, 46, of Texas. Known by the nickname "Mad Dog," he has a rap sheet that includes marijuana possession, three drunken-driving convictions and four citations for public intoxication. DeWan referred questions about his background to his employer.
Bill J. Neal, 60, of North Carolina, who served more than six years in prison in three states for criminal sexual conduct, attempted embezzlement of public money, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and cocaine possession. After last year's hurricanes, he trained new inspectors in Florida. Neal told the newspaper he had an impeccable work record.
Niels S. May, 39, of Tampa, who pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana, cocaine and drug paraphernalia in 1996. During a search of his home, police found two rifles, a shotgun and a .357 Magnum, court records show. "I'm not going to discuss my criminal history, and it's not much of one, to anybody," May told the Sun-Sentinel.
Darin P. Brebes, 36, a longtime inspector. Twice convicted of drunken driving in California, Brebes is wanted in Florida for failing to appear on a 1999 DUI in Broward County. Brebes said he no longer drinks, adding that a DUI is nothing more than "a traffic violation."
The four are among thousands of independent contractors FEMA has relied on to evaluate damage in disaster areas and help determine whether applicants receive government aid.
It is not known how many in the whole work force might have criminal records because FEMA will not release the names of any of its inspectors or their supervisors, citing an "unwarranted invasion of their personal privacy." The Sun-Sentinel has filed a federal suit against FEMA and its umbrella agency, the Department of Homeland Security, seeking the identities of inspectors and aid recipients.
The newspaper found 30 inspectors or managers with criminal records out of 133 it was able to identify through confidential sources, news clips, FEMA applicants and the Internet. A case against another inspector, charged in Mississippi with the attempted rape of a Hurricane Ivan victim, is still pending. The count includes those with at least one misdemeanor offense, such as drunken driving, but excludes traffic citations or infractions.
Of the inspectors and supervisors identified as having records, 17 had criminal histories at the time they were hired. At least four lost their jobs for arrests after they were hired, including one scheduled for sentencing May 6 in California for child molestation, and two convicted of federal bribery charges for promising higher FEMA payments in exchange for money.
Seven inspectors have records for marijuana or cocaine possession, including one convicted in 2002 after being hired as an inspector in what the local sheriff described as one of the largest drug busts ever in his Louisiana county.
Another inspector is a house burglar who served three stints in prison in Ohio.
How it works Almost all the inspectors worked for a subsidiary of Parsons Brinckerhoff of Virginia, which has a $150 million, five-year contract with FEMA to recruit, hire and dispatch inspectors to national disasters. Another Virginia company, PaRR Inspections, also has a FEMA contract under similar terms.
FEMA used inspectors' assessments of damage to homes and belongings last year to disburse more than $1 billion in aid to Floridians after the hurricanes. Parsons Brinckerhoff dispatched 2,000 inspectors after the storms, its "largest effort" ever, a company bulletin says.
Neither FEMA nor its inspection companies would say how many inspectors have criminal records.
The government requires the companies to "conduct a complete background check" of inspectors that includes local, state and national criminal searches, FEMA said in a statement to the newspaper. "Records are searched for both felony and misdemeanor charges."
Gregory L. Reynolds, 48, deputy project manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, said the company has complied with the requirement. "Our background check is very thorough," he said.
Yet Reynolds said he was unaware of the criminal records uncovered by the newspaper.
Reynolds himself was convicted of DUI in Virginia in December. The court restricted his driver's license. "I can drive to work and back," he said.
FEMA and Parsons Brinckerhoff would not say what crimes -- either before or after hiring -- preclude an applicant from serving as an inspector or supervisor.
Parsons Brinckerhoff released a statement saying it uses a company to do FEMA-approved background screening and criminal checks on every inspector "to the extent we are able to obtain such information." Parsons Brinckerhoff "carefully considers the background information we receive in deciding whether an individual inspector is suitable for work."
A lawyer for PaRR referred questions to FEMA.
FEMA declined to comment on the criminal records the newspaper found or its confidence in inspectors. The agency would not answer questions about whether it was aware of the records or if not, what action, if any, would be taken.
Parsons Brinckerhoff fired Brebes, the inspector with the warrant for the Broward County DUI, after being contacted by the Sun-Sentinel last week, he said.
"I should have taken care of it a long time ago," Brebes told the newspaper. "I'm not a criminal. I'm not a bad person. I just had unfortunate drinking incidents."
Inspectors are paid about $45 per inspection and can make upward of $100,000 a year. Several told the newspaper that the job is demanding. Called to disasters nationwide, inspectors must leave their families for weeks at a time and work long hours. Some have been threatened and robbed on the job.
`Not all bad' "We're not all bad because we have criminal histories," said inspector Keith Zaengle, 40, of Hernando County. "We're just the only ones they can get who will do this."
During a 1992 search of Zaengle's home, Tampa police found 4 pounds of marijuana, four scales, two shotguns, a rifle and $1,204 tucked in a cup, police records say. Zaengle told police he was "just dealing small amounts to friends and using the rest himself," the records say.
He received probation after pleading no contest to possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in an "adjudication withheld" agreement that allowed him to avoid convictions. He pled guilty to another marijuana possession charge in 1999, records show. Zaengle said he has been an inspector for both PaRR and Parsons Brinckerhoff.
"I live a good life," he told the newspaper. "In my five or six years of doing this, I've done a lot of applicants a lot of good. I'm very proud of what I've done."
Inspector Jerry Koontz, a wedding photographer from Oroville, Calif., told the Sun-Sentinel that he disclosed his criminal record on his application to become a FEMA inspector. Koontz, now 60, was convicted of possession of cocaine for sale in 1984 and served six months in a work-furlough program in California. Parsons Brinckerhoff hired him and dispatched him last year to Florida, where he handled FEMA claims after Hurricane Ivan.
The company fired him, he said, after an aid applicant in Pensacola complained that he "became obsessed with her and began to follow her around," according to police records.
Parsons Brinckerhoff prohibits inspectors from socializing with applicants. Koontz told the newspaper he called the woman repeatedly, brought her gifts and took her family to dinner.
"I was wrong," he said. "All I was doing was trying to help the poor girl."
`Gallons of booze' Parsons Brinckerhoff also fired inspector Terry Rucks, 53, of El Granada, Calif., last year, a day before an Escambia County Sheriff's deputy found him in a motor home with a stun gun, a pit bull and items damaged by Hurricane Ivan. No charges were filed against him.
Rucks told the Sun-Sentinel he and a hitchhiker he befriended had taken "a nice big toolbox with power tools," a life jacket, boat fenders and "gallons and gallons of booze."
"Nothing was stolen," he said. "Before we took anything, we said: `Are you guys throwing this away?'"
During questioning by the deputy, Rucks acknowledged that "he had an extensive criminal background," the sheriff's report states.
Rucks told the Sun-Sentinel that he was charged with manslaughter in a boating accident (the charge was later dropped), jailed twice for violating a restraining order filed by a former wife, and convicted of resisting arrest.
"Twenty-five years ago when I was a youngster, some cops gave me a hard time," he said. "I whipped up on them. I was charged with resisting arrest, which I did, and I'm proud of it."
After being fired by Parsons Brinckerhoff, Rucks said, PaRR contracted with him to do hurricane inspections in central and northeast Florida.
Treasurer stole funds Long-time inspector Bill Neal said he was fired last year by Parsons Brinckerhoff after the company learned of his criminal record. Neal appealed, and the company rehired him as a trainer, a job that kept him out of applicants' homes, he told the newspaper.
Neal's criminal history dates to 1979, when, as the elected treasurer of Highland Park, Mich., he was arrested for stealing city funds, court records show. He served nine months in prison.
From 1987 to 1992, home for Neal was a state prison in Michigan, records show.
He pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct after a colleague at the National Monetary Corp. in Troy, Mich., told police he attacked her following an office party, court records state.
While in jail for that crime, federal prosecutors charged Neal with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Working as a salesman in 1983, he helped clients interested in drilling for oil and gas in a program run by the federal Bureau of Land Management, court records state.
"The heart of the crime centers on a series of false representations made by Neal during his sales pitch over the telephone," the pre-sentencing memo says. He served two months in the summer of 1992 in a federal prison in Oregon.
A little more than a year later, Neal was working for the federal government. He performed damage inspections for FEMA in southern California after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, he told the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News in 1999.
By then, Neal told the paper, he had done more than 6,000 FEMA inspections.
Six months after that interview, he was back in prison in California for DUI and cocaine possession.
He was released from prison Feb. 27, 2001, and returned to work as a FEMA inspector. After successfully completing the terms of probation, the drug charge was dismissed.
"If you go back to the embezzlement, I did do that," he told the newspaper. But Neal said he was the victim of "prosecutorial misconduct" in the criminal sexual conduct case.
Most of the charges against him occurred in the 1980s in "a bad part of my life," Neal said. "My work record has been impeccable over the last 20 years."
A badge and picture Another FEMA inspector, Mark S. Verheyden, now 45, was charged in 1994 with soliciting a $500 kickback from a federal disaster aid applicant near Houston. He pleaded guilty to bribery and served 26 months in federal prison in Marianna.
By then he already had a lengthy criminal record in Florida. During a 1983 arrest, an Orange County sheriff's deputy had to tie Verheyden's feet with rope after he tried to kick out the windows of a patrol car, a police report says.
He received 10 years' probation in 1986 for kidnapping and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after he forced a former girlfriend into his car, put a construction-type nail gun to her ribs, and ordered her to drive to an "unknown dirt road in an orange grove," court records state.
"After about three hours of begging to be released," records say, "she decided to lie to Verheyden and tell him that she loved him again and would move in with him again."
Verheyden, who could not be located for comment, also had convictions for battery, driving with a suspended license, resisting arrest without violence, leaving the scene of an accident, contempt of court and reckless driving.
Cynthia Leath of Crosby, Texas, had no reason to distrust Verheyden when FEMA sent him to her home in 1994 after she filed a flood damage claim. Verheyden worked for a private company that no longer has a contract with FEMA. Leath said she was unaware that he was not directly employed by the agency.
"He had a sign on his truck that said FEMA," she recalled. "He had a badge on his shirt, with his picture and big bold FEMA letters."
Once in her home, Verheyden asked Leath for sex and $500 in return for inflating her claim, she said. Leath reported Verheyden and helped authorities catch him on tape seeking a bribe.
Through the court case, Leath learned of Verheyden's criminal past.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "He's a representative of the government here to help me."
Staff Researchers Barbara Hijek and William Lucey contributed to this story. Megan O'Matz can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4518. Sally Kestin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4510.
James A. DeWan
Background: Known by the nickname "Mad Dog," he has a rap sheet that includes marijuana possession, three drunken-driving convictions and four citations for public intoxication.
Comment: DeWan referred questions about his background to his employer.