Senate Looks Into FEMA Fraud Accusations
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Here's one of the questions put to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency this morning: Should FEMA be paying for furniture that doesn't exist? The question came at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The panel wants to know if FEMA wasted millions of dollars during hurricane recovery in Florida last year. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
According to Department of Homeland Security acting inspector general Richard Skinner, here is how reimbursements for damaged furniture worked in Miami-Dade County after Hurricane Frances last year.
Mr. RICHARD SKINNER (Acting Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security): A resident may have had a single bed in a room which was destroyed by the storm, yet FEMA would pay the resident the cost of an 11-piece bedroom suite.
SHAPIRO: That's because FEMA policy says people with damaged bedrooms get reimbursed for an entire bedroom, regardless of what was actually in the room to begin with. That finding was part of the inspector general's audit of FEMA's response to Hurricane Frances in Miami-Dade County. The audit, which was released today, found widespread problems in FEMA's policies for handing out aid. In one instance, the agency gave someone $6,500 for a car that was supposedly destroyed by an electrical fire, except, General Skinner said, the woman had no car to show the inspector.
Mr. SKINNER: So, therefore, the inspector had to rely entirely on her verbal representation that, `Yes, I had a car. Yes, it was destroyed through an electrical fire. And, yes, it has now been discarded.'
SHAPIRO: The director of FEMA, Michael Brown, had an explanation for most of these offenses. In cases like that of a car, he said, he has to trust his field inspectors, who make judgment calls based in part on body language and context.
Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Director, FEMA): You take a single mother in Miami-Dade County who maybe relied upon that Opal Kadet to get her kids to school or to get to work, maybe two or three jobs that she's working, our goal is to get that single mother transportation, not to give her $250 or $450 or $2,000 to meet the Blue Book value of her car.
SHAPIRO: But the inspector general's report said people making those judgment calls may have had conflicts of interest. FEMA inspectors were sometimes assigned to their own neighborhoods, so they approved damage awards for people they knew. There also may have been criminal behavior, according to Democratic Florida Senator Bill Nelson. He said he plans to introduce legislation that would cut down on waste and fraud at FEMA.
Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): This would prevent cases like the one of the FEMA agent who bought an ocean-front home from a 72-year-old woman who sought out agency advice when she became concerned about the mold that was occurring in her home as a result of the storm.
SHAPIRO: To FEMA director Brown, these flaws are the unavoidable byproduct of the largest FEMA mobilization in history. Brown said four back-to-back storms forced him to make a choice between quick action and careful action.
Mr. BROWN: That will always be the balance that FEMA strives to meet, the balance between getting aid quickly, effectively to everyone who needs it and balancing the desire to make sure that we're good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
SHAPIRO: Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, was not convinced.
Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I don't think that there is a tradeoff between responsive, swift assistance to those who are truly victims and protecting taxpayers against waste, fraud and abuse. I think we can do both.
SHAPIRO: Collins says it's crucial to fix these problems because if the public perceives FEMA as wasting taxpayer money, then Americans will be less likely to support disaster relief funding when it's really needed. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.