Politicians like to talk about getting rid of waste and fraud in Washington. So why has there been so little attention paid to what appears to be substantial and blatant fraud in the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been doling out hurricane relief funds?
Newspaper reports indicate that substantial claims have been made in areas barely brushed by last year's storms _ paid out by an agency that has failed to tighten controls. In Miami-Dade County, for example, more than 10,000 residents have been paid more than $29-million for damage suffered by Hurricane Frances, when that storm landed 100 miles north of the county. Local residents said they saw neighbors dousing their furniture with water and breaking car windows with rocks ahead of FEMA inspectors in order to substantiate their claims.
An investigative series by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has uncovered egregious and obvious fraud that would have taken FEMA investigators little time to discover on their own.
The Sun-Sentinel talked to the management of one Homestead apartment complex whose residents cashed multiple FEMA checks. He told the paper that he knew of no hurricane-related damage to any of the 92 apartments. Neighbors said the FEMA money was used for cars and jewelry.
While it is true that Florida was socked with four hurricanes in six weeks and a priority for FEMA was to get relief to those devastated by the storms, disaster aid seems to have been shoveled out the door without any real accountability.
The Sun-Sentinel found that even when local emergency management officials raised alarm bells that a community should not receive any disaster relief because it was unaffected by a storm, FEMA paid out a large numbers of claims.
In Mobile County, Ala., FEMA approved $29-million in claims last year for flooding, despite being told by the county's emergency management director that the county had suffered no damage.
This is what happens when the leadership in an agency decides that responsible stewardship should take a backseat to spending taxpayers' money. FEMA director Michael Brown has some explaining to do and members of Congress should start asking questions.
After the Sun-Sentinel series began, the inspector general's office of the Department of Homeland Security said it is investigating fraud allegations in Miami-Dade. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has sent letters to his Senate colleagues on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asking for "vigorous congressional oversight" into claims arising from the recent storms, and seeking an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
If Washington bureaucrats want to know why American taxpayers are sometimes grudging about trusting them to spend their money, here is a good example. Congress appropriated $8.5-billion to FEMA for hurricane relief after Florida's terrible summer. But when Americans hear that tens of millions of dollars went to areas that barely experienced a stiff breeze, they have reason to feel duped.