Saturday, February 11, 2006

Auditors Find Huge Fraud in FEMA Aid

The New York Times
Auditors Find Huge Fraud in FEMA Aid

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 — Thousands of applicants for federal emergency relief money after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita used duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers or bogus addresses, suggesting that the $2.3 billion program was a victim of extensive fraud, a Congressional auditor will report Monday.

The examination of the so-called Expedited Assistance program determined that the Federal Emergency Management Agency failed to take even the most basic steps to confirm the identifies of about 1.4 million people who sought expedited cash assistance, leaving the program vulnerable to the "significant fraud and abuse," the Government Accountability Office intends to report.

The auditors did not try to estimate the total dollar amount of fraudulent claims. But the report says that FEMA itself had found that 900,000 of the 2.5 million applications for all forms of individual assistance were "potential duplicates."

Even when FEMA's automated computer system picked out what might be fraudulent applications, payments were at times still sent, says the advance testimony of Gregory D. Kutz, the managing director of the G.A.O.'s forensic audits unit.

The controls were so lax that auditors were able to secure their own $2,000 relief check by using "falsified identifies, bogus addresses and fabricated disaster stories," and then simply waiting for the money to arrive in the mail, says the report for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency recognized there could be fraud. But Ms. Andrews said the priority was getting aid as fast as possible to hundreds of thousands of families in dire need.

"We took a calculated risk in a catastrophic situation," she said. "It was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, some may have cheated the system."

She added that some arrests have been made. The agency is also suspending payments to people suspected of trying to cheat the system.

Still, the auditors found signs of fraud nearly everywhere:

¶Nearly half of the 11,000 individuals who received special debit cards as payment — an approach used in the immediate aftermath of the storm in Texas — got a second $2,000 payment in emergency aid.

¶Inspections of 200 properties in Texas and Louisiana listed as home addresses turned up 80 that were vacant lots or nonexistent apartments.

¶More than half of a group of 248 other applicants had used Social Security numbers that were never issued, belonged to dead people or did not match the name provided.

In one case, auditors found 17 individuals, some with the same last name and addresses, who used 34 bogus Social Security numbers to collect more than $103,000 in payments.

Auditors found isolated instances where the electronic debit cards were used to pay for "adult entertainment," a .45-caliber handgun, jewelry or bail bond services.