Thursday, June 15, 2006

FEMA pimped my ride

For months after Hurricane Rita humbled Southeast Texas, we heard whispered rumors that sounded too much like urban legends as told to my cousin's boyfriend's uncle's barber: FEMA checks and debit cards were being used to buy liposuction, boats, vacations, parties that lasted for weeks, jewelry, electronics, new and improved vehicles and more. We heard one story in several versions: How members of a large, extended family that lived in one dilapidated little bungalow EACH claimed FEMA's $2,000 emergency relief, and the household was suddenly $20,000 to $30,000 richer.

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.


Michael Gillespie said...

When a government program is so poorly conceived and negligently administered that it is subject to wholesale abuse and pays out over $1 billion for fraudulent claims at the taxpayers' expense, common sense would seem to demand not only that those who filed and collected on fraudulent claims be brought to justice, but, in the interest of preventing similar boondogles in the future, that the bureaucrats responsible for the program be held accountable for their negligence. The General Accountabililty Office (GAO) formerly known as the General Accounting Office, has uncovered the negligence and fraud. Now, the question is: Will FEMA director David Paulison hold the irresponsible bureaucrats accountable for their negligence? If Paulison sends a signal that says there is no price to pay for negligence and malfeasance, taxpayers can reasonably expect to see more of the same.

Ron Franscell said...

I think you raise an excellent point: Punish the government bureaucrats who didn't effectively steward the taxpayers' money, and allowed scammers to dip into the treasury. I'm for that.

Maybe they should do community service, too.

New news today: FEMA's response is now to cut the emergency allotment from $2,000 to $500.

SingingSkies said...

I've been out of the loop for a few days, so am just catching up on this.

It's absolutely aggravating on both sides of the equation: those who took advantage of a catastrophic situation and those who set up the inadequate system which allowed such abuse in the first place. At some level, I'm impressed that they figured it out so quickly (for a bureaucracy, at any rate).

Community service might not be a bad solution for all involved, and would accomplish several things. (1) Those who took advantage of the system would be involved in restorative justice, giving back to those they harmed, while also gleaning some practical job skills (one would hope at any rate). (2) Those who live in the ivory towers of upper bureaucratic levels would have first hand experience of the devastation wrought and the extensive resources needed to recover from such an overwhelming event, and would come away with some practical skills, as well. (3) The communities receiving their assistance would have more hands and bodies available to help with the overwhelming task of putting back together shattered infrastructure and lives.

I like the way you think, Ron!

Ivy said...

A life time of community service would serve those well! Its a no win situation. You've got those who spent the money on pointless, non needed things and they have so far at this point gotten away with it. Then you have those who are still fighting to get their homes fixed before the next big one hits us.. Who didnt get jack from the goverment but didnt have the means to fix and start their lives back up..

When they lower the amount of money give.. If people even see any money next time.. We all know 500$ doesnt go far! Its not going to pay for gas, groceries, ect for long. And certainly not for a family of 6.

I think the smart thing to say. Would be to start believing the government wont be there to pick up the bill in the future.. We better start preparing ourselves for the future.. And not plan on riding Fema's coat tails for the long haul..

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