A Georgia man was sentenced Wednesday to two years and nine months in prison for filing more than 30 false claims seeking emergency compensation for damages from three Gulf Coast hurricanes, a tornado in Indiana and flooding in New Hampshire.
U.S. District Court Charles Pannell Jr. also ordered Desima James, 30, to repay almost $34,000 to the federal government. He previously pleaded guilty to a single count of mail fraud as part of a plea deal for a more lenient sentence.
While dozens of people have been accused of defrauding the government after major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina five years ago, prosecutors say James was among the most prolific ever caught in north Georgia. Prosecutor Steve McClain requested the prison sentence in the hope it would deter others from swindling money after major emergencies.
“You should not take advantage of these programs when the government is offering assistance to the true victims of natural disasters,” McClain said during a sentencing hearing.
A former resident of New Orleans, James rode out Hurricane Katrina and claimed he had to swim through polluted water to survive. He argued that two claims filed under his own name after the storm were legitimate. Prosecutors disputed that point, saying James illegally sought compensation for a home where he did not live.
Afterward, he filed false claims using aliases, fake Social Security numbers and fictitious addresses. Prosecutors said James has a record of convictions for fraud and theft.
With food and other essentials scarce, James fled to Atlanta in the back of a U-Haul truck and worked various jobs, his attorney said. He used some of the ill-gotten money to pay for the medication and funeral of his cancer-stricken father and also pay his rent and utilities in Atlanta.
“My main thing was just save my family. It wasn’t to hurt anyone,” James told the judge. “It was survival tactics at that time.”
FEMA officials did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
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