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Couple Held on Suspicion of Relief Funds Fraud : Crime: The two allegedly tried to cash in on more than $50,000 in aid after the Northridge quake and other disasters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal authorities Wednesday arrested an unemployed Woodland Hills couple suspected of trying to steal more than $50,000 in government relief funds intended for victims of the 1992 and 1993 floods, as well as the Northridge earthquake.

The couple, Douglas Maskart, 53, and his wife, Joyce, 44, are the latest of more than 30 people accused of fraud by the Los Angeles Earthquake Fraud Task Force, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Nathan Hochman.

They are the first, however, who authorities allege tried to cash in on two earlier disasters, in addition to the Jan. 17 earthquake. The Maskarts are accused of submitting false information on aid and loan applications to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.

“This is the first instance of someone taking advantage of FEMA and SBA over the course of three different natural disasters,” Hochman said.

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Barbara O’Connor, a federal public defender assigned to represent Douglas Maskart, said Wednesday she could not comment on the charges. The Maskarts could not be reached.

Federal prosecutors said that damage from flooding in February, 1992, prompted the couple to move from their Woodland Hills home in the 4500 block of San Blas Avenue to a rented house in the 22000 block of Covello Street in Canoga Park. They received federally paid rental assistance for the next 18 months, authorities said.

The trouble is, they owned the Canoga Park house, said Hochman, and were therefore not entitled to the rental assistance.

Following severe flooding a year later, the Maskarts applied for more emergency housing assistance because of damage to their Woodland Hills home, even though they were still living in the Canoga Park house, Hochman said.

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Following the Northridge earthquake, the Maskarts submitted three separate FEMA disaster relief applications and four applications to SBA, authorities said. In two applications, the couple claimed to have been living in their Woodland Hills home, which at the time had already been condemned, Hochman said.

They also claimed to have lost $34,000 in personal property from their Woodland Hills house, including crystal, ceramic art, electronic equipment and a piano, according to federal authorities.

Arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 19 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

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Making false and fraudulent emergency disaster claims carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Hochman said.

In an unrelated case, federal authorities said Wednesday they also arrested FEMA inspector Patricia Morris, 38, of Moreno Valley for allegedly submitting inspection reports on earthquake-damaged properties she never visited. Morris’ attorney, also Barbara O’Connor, said she could not comment.

Both Morris and the Maskarts were investigated following tips to the fraud task force, authorities said.

So far, 27 people have been convicted of making false claims following the Northridge earthquake, and at least four have been sentenced to prison, Hochman said.

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Among those convicted, “there have been a lot of hardship cases--homeless people, single mothers,” Hochman said.


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