Billions of Dollars in Damage Followed by Billions of Dollars in Fraud

Aug 28, 2006 11:20am

Tina Marie Winston says she watched in horror a year ago as her two daughters, aged five and six, were swept away and drowned during Hurricane Katrina. She collected $5,600 from FEMA for her "pain and suffering" to help pay for her daughters’ burial. It was a heartbreaking story, but, according to federal prosecutors, it was also a lie.  They say her two daughters did not die.  In fact, they never existed. She was in southern Illinois, 662 miles from New Orleans, when Katrina happened.  She has pled not guilty to federal fraud charges. Her case is one of some 7,000 suspected cases of fraud by people accused of cashing in on the billions in emergency aid. According to Congressional investigators, more than a billion dollars was handed out to people who found FEMA was an easy target for fraud in the days after the hurricane. "FEMA received over two-and-a-half million applications for individual assistance. You could call in by telephone, make an application, you could do it on the internet, or you could do it in person, " says David Dugas,  U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana who heads the Katrina Fraud Task Force out of Baton Rouge. "And FEMA would send them the assistance because that’s what it was for."  In Biloxi, Miss., prosecutors say an overgrown lot, which had been empty for years, was one of 19 fake addresses used by Lawanda Williams to collect a total of $277,000 in taxpayer money from FEMA.  No one ever checked her information, and she has since pled not guilty. "Last year, we did not have the ability to perform an identity verification on over half of our registrants," explained David Garrett, the Acting Director of Recovery at FEMA. Using the same method as Williams, according to prosecutors, Houston hairdresser Michael Green (pictured above) collected some $36,000 from FEMA. He too has pled not guilty, but the controversy surrounding Green isn’t only over the money but rather what he allegedly used it for — a sex-change operation. Green’s lawyer categorically denies that he used the money for a sex-change operation, and in fact, won’t confirm Green had the operation at all, but pictures of him show a man with longish dyed hair and large breasts. Such cases outrage the real victims of Hurricane Katrina. "It’s fraud; it’s wrong; it’s illegal," says Pastor Randy Millet of St. Bernard’s Parish in New Orleans, who counsels dozens in his congregation who really have lost their homes and loved ones in Hurricane Katrina.  "It’s a slap in the face to the people who really lost everything." Federal prosecutors have charged more than 370 people with fraud and are working through a list of some 7,000 leads.  Dugas has a warning for those who think they’ve gotten away with scamming the system. "For those who tried and think they got away with it, we have five years to find you," he says, "and bring you to justice."

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