Four Florida members of Congress called Wednesday for an investigation into federal hurricane aid distribution, while state legislators are considering legislation to increase penalties for falsifying disaster applications.
The actions were spurred by reports in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that residents of Miami-Dade County, which escaped the brunt of the four storms, have collected more than $28 million in disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The government paid for new wardrobes, furniture and appliances for more than 12,000 Miami-Dade residents in areas with no significant damage.
"It is very obvious fraud is involved," said state Rep. Leslie Waters, R-St. Petersburg and chairwoman of a committee formed to review the hurricane responses in Florida. "Our taxpayer money is being misspent, mishandled and misappropriated. These findings are appalling."
Republicans and Democrats signed a letter asking the Government Accountability Office to review FEMA's aid distribution for all four hurricanes.
"While we appreciate the tremendous work that FEMA has done ... we believe that it is important to carefully review the actual implementation of this aid, including why certain less-affected areas appear to have received aid for seemingly unrelated property or fraudulent claims," said the letter signed by Reps. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton; Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar; Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo; and Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville.
Citing the newspaper's findings that FEMA paid for dental injuries, damage blamed on "ice/snow" and a funeral even though the medical examiner recorded no storm-related deaths, the congressmen noted that "at a minimum these reports call into question the clarity of the aid process and deserve a thorough investigation."
The GAO, a watchdog arm of Congress, will consider the request at a meeting Monday, a spokeswoman said.
A FEMA official involved in the hurricane aid distribution in Florida said Wednesday it is "really too soon to tell" whether applicants in Miami-Dade filed fraudulent claims.
"Our mission is to give out assistance to those who need it," said Brad Gair, deputy federal coordinating officer for FEMA. "We have to recognize all programs are imperfect. There are people on our side who may make mistakes, and there are people on the side of the applicants who may make mistakes or might try to take advantage of the system."
Miami-Dade residents claimed Hurricane Frances, the Labor Day storm that struck more than 100 miles to the north, damaged thousands of microwaves, refrigerators, televisions and other appliances. One resident claimed the storm ruined five TVs; another, three lawn mowers, the newspaper reported.
"There is widespread frustration and disgust in Tallahassee over these reports of alleged fraud," said state Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "It's just something particularly pathetic about fraud that occurs against the backdrop of a natural disaster where so many people have had real human suffering."
Lee assigned Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, to review state laws to prevent fraud in future disasters. One solution may be to make penalties more severe, Villalobos said Wednesday.
Currently, state theft and false claims laws carry penalties of up to 5 years in prison and maximum fines of $10,000. "One of the things we will be looking at is the possibility of enhancing penalties when it's during a disaster," Villalobos said.
The proposal, which has Lee's support, would likely come up when the Legislature meets in March.
The Sun-Sentinel has reported that word of easy FEMA money spread through Miami-Dade's poor neighborhoods, and some residents said their neighbors soaked their belongings and called it hurricane damage.
"I don't know that there's fraud," Villalobos said. "But I live there, and frankly I don't see what damage could have occurred because of the hurricane. Yeah the wind blew hard for a couple of days. If it's true somebody brought the water hose and stuck it in their living room and poured water on their couch, they ought to go to jail."
So far, only the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's umbrella agency, is investigating the Miami-Dade claims.
The county's state attorney has received no cases for prosecution, a spokesman said.
Tom Gallagher, Florida's chief financial officer responsible for investigating "financial fraud," said he has no plans to look into the Miami-Dade claims.
"Let me assure you that we have a lot of cases we're working," Gallagher said. "To go start an investigation when there's only been an allegation we've read in the paper as opposed to the federal government or anybody else telling us there's fraud, I'm not going to put resources out."
Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, asked last week by state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell to investigate, said he planned first to send a letter to FEMA to "give them an opportunity to respond."
"There may be an explanation," Crist said. "Allegations are not necessarily facts."
Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he would continue to press Crist's office to investigate.
"I hope the government, now that we've found out there's a problem, doesn't put its head in the sand and say, `Listen, it's only tax dollars. Let's forget about this,'" Campbell said.
FEMA plans to begin a statewide audit within a few weeks of hurricane claims throughout Florida.
"We may need to make programmatic changes," Gair said. "We're pretty confident that we'll figure out whether the programs are working on this disaster in Florida, in Miami-Dade, across the board how it's working and whether or not we're doing a good job."
Until then, FEMA cannot explain why it paid more than 600 Miami-Dade residents to fix or replace vehicles applicants claimed Frances ruined or why inspectors blamed damage on "ice/snow."
"A lot of this is done electronically," Gair said. "We all know in this electronic age one press of the wrong keystroke can enter data."
Gair also could not explain why FEMA paid for a funeral or seven others marked "pending" final approval as of last month.
"These issues that you're raising are great points," he said. "They're all worth looking at. We intend to do just that on a statewide basis to see if there are areas that don't match up to what we normally would expect."
FEMA's goal is to get disaster aid out quickly to those who need it.
"There would be a very justified clamor if we stopped and made everyone show all their documentation before we let any money flow, so we try to balance that," Gair said. "We think we have a pretty good handle on the way we do it. We recognize it always could be done better."
State Rep. Susan Bucher, D-Royal Palm Beach, hopes the government learns from its mistakes in Miami-Dade.
"The current system does not work. FEMA needs to be revamped," she said. "We need quality assurance on the front end, not after we give a gazillion dollars away."
Sally Kestin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4510.Copyright © 2015, CT Now