The rumors were hard to nail down, and frankly, many had a racist tone, so there was seldom any proof offered as we gathered ourselves for the bigger daily tasks of covering a storm-wracked community.
Now, Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO) has revealed that as much as $1.4 BILLION of FEMA's disaster-relief money for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was spent on all those things ... and even more astounding stuff. (Read the GAO abstract here) That's roughly $1 out of every $6 going to fraud. Reports the Los Angeles Times:
"A Texas man filed 19 applications and used the money for a sex-change operation. Elsewhere in Texas, a recipient used FEMA money to buy a diamond ring and other jewelry worth $3,700. FEMA gave an individual $2,358 in rental assistance while paying an additional $8,000 so that same person could stay at a Hawaii hotel for more than two months. FEMA funds purchased a $2,200 weeklong vacation in the Dominican Republic and five season tickets to the New Orleans Saints. In Houston, federal money was used to buy sexual enhancement products and hire a divorce lawyer. And thanks to FEMA, someone in Santa Monica purchased $300 worth of "Girls Gone Wild" sex videos."
The federal government can't afford hurricanes even when all of its money is spent wisely. This fraud is not only a affront to taxpayers, it's criminal. There's little hope the money can be returned, but the creeps who perpetrated their greedy schemes on us should pay. Jail time would be approrpiate in many of these instances (which, of course, forces taxpayers to pay again, but with the slight satisfaction of retribution.)
One fear is that these criminal tendencies will make FEMA even more tentative in future emergencies, exactly the opposite response we want from FEMA. One hopes FEMA has adopted new filters to make sure they are not defrauded further, but frankly, their responses to the GAO report suggest no such sea-change is imminent. So taxpayers either continue to be ripped off, or FEMA merely becomes slower as its only effort at repair.
Oh, maybe better than jail would be to sentence these cretins to a life of community service, maybe on post-hurricane clean-up crews at minimum wage.