A federal judge ruled Friday that the government must make public the names of FEMA inspectors and the addresses of disaster aid recipients in a lawsuit brought by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
The newspaper filed suit in March 2005 after the Federal Emergency Management Agency withheld information about disaster claims and some e-mails of former agency director Michael Brown.U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra ruled the Sun-Sentinel is entitled to the names of FEMA inspectors, the addresses of recipients but not their names, and all but two of Brown's e-mails.
"I think that this is a significant victory for the Sun-Sentinel and the public as well," said Rachel E. Fugate, the newspaper's attorney. "We are so pleased that the public interest and the need for further investigation of FEMA's disbursement process was clear to the judge."
FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said late Friday afternoon that the agency had not received the ruling and would not comment until it did.
Marra noted in his ruling that the Freedom of Information Act is intended to "let citizens know what their government is up to."
"There is a substantial and legitimate public interest in FEMA's handling of disaster assistance in the wake of recent hurricanes," he wrote.
A 15-month Sun-Sentinel investigation after the 2004 Florida hurricanes revealed that FEMA awarded $31 million to Miami-Dade County residents for a storm that struck 100 miles away. The newspaper uncovered similar patterns in disasters nationwide and found that FEMA relied on poorly trained inspectors, some of whom had criminal records.
Government investigations that followed "unearthed that FEMA's disbursement of assistance was rife with fraud and waste," Marra wrote.
Releasing the addresses of people receiving disaster assistance, the judge concluded, "will shed light on the activities and operations of FEMA; namely, the extent to which ineffective quality controls and processing of aid applications may have resulted in wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars by FEMA."
FEMA gave the newspaper claims data by ZIP code but withheld names and addresses of recipients, citing privacy concerns.
"Without the addresses of the purported damaged property, it would not be possible to analyze fully the allegations of fraud and wasteful spending," Marra wrote.
The judge made a distinction on the identities of recipients, concluding that releasing names would be "clearly unwarranted" and would not "serve the purpose of informing the citizenry."
FEMA also cited privacy concerns in refusing to identify the thousands of contracted inspectors it relies on to visit homes and sign off on damage claims. But the judge rejected that argument.
"This court is hard pressed to understand how revealing that an individual who works for a government contractor would constitute an invasion of privacy," Marra wrote. Releasing their identities "will allow the public to examine fully whether the process of selecting FEMA inspectors should be improved and whether these inspectors violated the public's trust in awarding disaster assistance."
Marra also ruled that FEMA had no legal basis to withhold Brown's emails about the Miami-Dade aid payments. While two emails contained legal advice that could not be released, the rest offered "suggestions and comments regarding suitable responses to inquiries from the press that questioned the appropriateness of FEMA's decisions in the wake of the hurricane disasters," the judge ruled.
Bryan Gulley, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., praised the judge's ruling. Nelson had filed a brief in support of the Sun-Sentinel's lawsuit.
"We certainly are concerned about privacy, but when there are issues of fraud and abuse, rampant fraud and abuse, there is a need for unlimited oversight," Gulley said.
Marra's decision differed from an earlier ruling in a similar case filed by three Florida papers owned by the Gannett Co.
In that case, U.S. District Judge John Steele in Fort Myers ruled in November that FEMA did not have to provide claimants' names or addresses. Gannett appealed the decision. The Associated Press and three major media companies -- E.W. Scripps Co., Media General Corp. and the Tribune Co., which publishes the Sun-Sentinel -- filed briefs in support of Gannett.
Sally Kestin can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4510.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times