FEMA Paid $28M Bogus Claims in Dade County, Fla.

November 24, 2004

The Florida Legislature has asked for an investigation on $28 million in illicit insurance claims paid for damage done by Hurricane Frances in Miami and Dade County, an area barely touched by the hurricane.

U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, wrote a letter to the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) saying that the organization “made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of taxpayer money.” Shaw asked the committee to call a hearing.

Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said Shaw raised “legitimate concerns,” and that the panel’s chairman will review the request.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, said he will ask the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, to investigate, and state Sen. Walter “Skip” Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, called for a criminal investigation.

The actions follow a Sunday report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that hurricane relief in Miami-Dade bought thousands of new televisions, microwaves, refrigerators and other appliances. FEMA paid for new cars, dental bills and a funeral, even though the medical examiner recorded no deaths from Frances.

FEMA inspectors attributed damage to tornadoes — there were none recorded in the county — and in six instances listed “ice/snow” as the cause, the newspaper reported.

After FEMA officials did not respond to repeated requests to explain the aid distribution in Miami-Dade, Shaw wrote to FEMA Director Michael D. Brown. The newspaper reported that thousands of Miami-Dade residents had collected hurricane relief from the Labor Day storm that hit 100 miles to the north. Brown announced that FEMA would investigate but so far has not provided any results or returned phone calls from the congressman’s staff, said Shaw, chairman of Florida’s delegation.

Several weeks ago in Washington, the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Homeland Security launched a review into the Miami-Dade claims.

“We’re looking at a variety of things,” said Richard L. Skinner, deputy inspector general. “It was brought to our attention by the media and Congress and as a result of that, we’re taking a special look at that.”

In areas with the most claims, residents told the newspaper they saw neighbors watering down belongings to make it look like hurricane damage.

Under federal law, it is illegal to file a false claim with FEMA. The FBI is not investigating because the individual grants, capped at $25,600 per applicant, are too small, said FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela.

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