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Agency ignored most cries of fraud
In recent years, public officials sounded the alarm about fraud in federal disaster aid. They were largely ignored.
In Bladen County, N.C., an elected commissioner has tried for months to stop the state from sending money to county residents who had already pocketed millions from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She's still trying.
In Wilmington, N.C., the head of the public housing authority alerted federal investigators to false claims from tenants collecting aid for a hurricane that he knew caused no damage. Privacy rules, he was told, prevented him from learning more about the payouts.
And in Mobile, Ala., the county's top emergency management official warned FEMA that people reportedly were intentionally damaging their homes to feign damage from tornadoes and flooding that never occurred. The checks kept coming.
Delilah Blanks calls it pork barrel spending.
"It's the power of politics," said the Bladen County, N.C., commissioner.
Blanks took the unusual step last spring of objecting to a state plan to funnel "crisis housing" assistance to the county for Hurricane Frances. Remnants of the 2004 storm caused horrendous flooding in western North Carolina, but half of Bladen County received, at most, four inches of rain, and the other half under one inch, according to the National Weather Service.
Still, FEMA awarded $2.7 million to 1,220 Bladen County recipients, FEMA records show.
Learning at the commission's April 18 meeting that the state wanted to give still more money, Blanks moved to deny the aid. During the discussion of her concerns, the county emergency management director "advised that there was no damage in Bladen County due to the storms of 2004," meeting minutes state.
Blanks told her colleagues the state housing funds should go to needy people in the western portion of the state.
"I live here," she said in an interview. "There's been no storm through this place."
Her motion was approved, 7-2.
The state offered applications anyway to Bladen County residents through the local North Carolina Cooperative Extension Office and continues to coax the commission to sign off on the money.
"There's no damage in this county," Blanks said last week. "I don't know why the state keeps wanting to send the money here. ... It's foolish. The money ought to go where the damage is.
Another North Carolina official, Benjamin J. Quattlebaum II, raised concerns in 2003 about the misuse of disaster aid.
The head of the Wilmington Housing Authority, Quattlebaum wrote to FEMA's inspector general after Hurricane Isabel that year, expressing concern that tenants were getting money when the authority knew of no damage to its buildings.
"Since we are the landlord for over 1,400 public housing units, we are concerned that `the system' not be abused and that if our residents did indeed suffer damage, why we are not aware of that damage," he wrote.
Quattlebaum asked for the identities of the tenants who submitted claims, but FEMA denied the request, citing confidentiality rules.
"We could not understand why FEMA did not coordinate with the housing authority to certify or verify these claims,'' Quattlebaum said in an interview with the Sun-Sentinel. "We were told that they [FEMA] had their own procedures and they have independent inspectors that went out and verified -- supposedly verified -- these claims."
In Alabama, the cry for help went straight to the top.
"Something is wrong in Mobile," came the written alert from an emergency manager to then-FEMA Director Michael Brown.
Though the county got six inches of rain on May 18, 2003, damage was minimal, wrote Paulette Williams, then the director of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency. Ultimately, 16,609 county residents collected $29.5 million from FEMA, records show.
"I know disasters, and Mobile didn't have a disaster of this magnitude," Williams wrote in February 2004, complaining that she had raised concerns repeatedly with state and federal officials and had been waiting several months to "hear of some resolution or at least some action or investigation."
Allegations of fraud, she said in an interview, kept coming into her office of people intentionally defacing their homes, including shaking up Coca-Cola bottles and spraying the contents onto walls.
"We had reports of people removing their furniture from their dwellings and putting old furniture back in," she said.
FEMA eventually sent an inspection team back to Mobile to review a portion of the claims.
Though Williams also alerted the U.S. Attorney's Office in Mobile and a U.S. senator, she knew of no arrests or recouped funds.
"I felt for awhile I was totally being ignored," she told the newspaper. "I just kept pursuing it. My concern was I didn't want to create a big issue. I just wanted the problem solved."
Megan O'Matz can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4518.