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Legislators urge FEMA inquiry over Miami-Dade payments
Florida lawmakers Tuesday called for state and federal investigations into how the government approved about $28 million in Hurricane Frances claims for new furniture, clothes and appliances for residents of Miami-Dade County, which was barely touched by the storm.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency "made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of taxpayer money," said U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. In a letter Tuesday, Shaw asked the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, to conduct a hearing.
Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said Shaw raised "legitimate concerns," and that the panel's chairman, Christopher Cox, R-Calif., will review the request.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, said he will ask the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, to investigate. State Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, called for a criminal investigation.
In a letter to Florida's attorney general, Campbell said that he is "very concerned about the possibility of fraud or criminal activity."
The actions follow a report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel Sunday that hurricane relief in Miami-Dade bought thousands of new televisions, microwaves, refrigerators and other appliances. FEMA paid for new cars, dental bills and a funeral, even though the county Medical Examiner recorded no deaths from Frances.
FEMA inspectors attributed damage to tornados -- there were none recorded in the county -- and in six instances listed "ice/snow" as the cause, the newspaper reported.
FEMA officials did not respond to repeated requests by the Sun-Sentinel to explain the aid distribution in Miami-Dade. They haven't responded to a congressman, either.
Shaw wrote to FEMA Director Michael D. Brown six weeks ago, after the newspaper first reported that thousands of Miami-Dade residents had collected hurricane relief from the Labor Day storm that hit 100 miles to the north. Brown announced that FEMA would investigate, but so far has not provided any results or returned phone calls from the congressman's staff, said Shaw, chairman of Florida's delegation.
"I haven't had the courtesy of a response," Shaw said in an interview Tuesday.
Several weeks ago in Washington, the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Homeland Security started a review into the Miami-Dade claims.
"We're looking at a variety of things," said Richard L. Skinner, deputy inspector general. "It was brought to our attention by the media and Congress and as a result of that we're taking a special look at that."
The review, which will take up to three months, has found no evidence of fraud yet, Skinner said.
The Government Accountability Office will review the scope of the inspector general's review before taking up Wexler's request to investigate, said Bill Jenkins, director of homeland security and justice issues for the GAO.
Other lawmakers are joining in the calls for investigations.
"It is offensive and downright shameful on the part of some [in Miami-Dade] who accepted money that they know they aren't entitled to," said David Goldenberg, legislative director for U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties. "Congressman Hastings has called on FEMA for an investigation. ... The answers [from FEMA] are always -- we're trying to figure it out."
FEMA awarded some Miami-Dade applicants thousands in housing assistance when their only documented damage was a broken radio or TV, the newspaper found. Applicants in some neighborhoods collected a total of $3 million when landmarks in the same area, such as colleges and golf courses, reported no damage.
In areas with the most claims, residents told the newspaper they saw neighbors watering down belongings to resemble hurricane damage.
Under federal law, it is illegal to file a false claim with FEMA. The FBI is not investigating because the individual grants, capped at $25,600 per applicant, are too small, said FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela.
The state pays 25 percent of the FEMA aid distributed in Florida. Campbell asked Attorney General Charlie Crist whether any state laws have been violated.
"Who is watching the henhouse?" Campbell said in an interview. "Sounds to me like someone made a lot of money off the hurricanes."
Crist said he is researching the request to determine whether his office has the authority to investigate.
"We're always concerned if there's potential fraud," he said.
The frequency and apparent ease with which more than 12,000 residents collected FEMA aid in a county largely unaffected by the storm has members of Congress calling for changes in the disaster-relief process.
"At a minimum, you would think FEMA would check with the cities and counties affected to see if there was snowfall or there were tornados," Wexler said. "This is not brain surgery."
Shaw said the government should change its disaster declaration procedures so that residents in unaffected counties cannot collect money. Miami-Dade was among 18 counties Gov. Jeb Bush sought to have declared a disaster area before Frances even struck.
When the storm made landfall well north, Miami-Dade remained in the declaration, allowing any resident in the county who claimed damage to file a FEMA claim.
"Perhaps that was a mistake, that we should be more selective in declaring the disaster area," Shaw said.
Sally Kestin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4510.