Katrina-related fraud widespread

Tina Marie Gilmore said she lost her two young daughters in the floodwaters that besieged New Orleans, suffering the unimaginable horror of watching the girls float away but being helpless to save them before they disappeared.

She bore other losses as well from Hurricane Katrina: destruction to her home on Cedar Street and $10,075 worth of personal property. Soon after the storm, Gilmore asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help her with financial disaster assistance. FEMA sent her $4,358.

Turns out, her real name was Tina Marie Winston, she had no such daughters, her New Orleans “address” didn’t exist and, when Katrina struck nearly a year ago, she actually was in Belleville, Ill., where she had lived for more than a year. She was indicted on federal fraud charges in June.

Gary Kraser also bore testament to the heartbreak the storm brought, and the desperate and costly struggle to help the survivors. On a Web site dubbed AirKatrina.com, Kraser recounted the flights he piloted to Louisiana, bringing medical supplies and helping to evacuate the sick. One flight carried a 7-month-old in critical need of transplant surgery, he said.

A North Miami resident, Kraser said he had organized a group of Florida pilots to help, but they needed money for fuel. Within two days, he had collected almost $40,000 in donations from sympathetic strangers around the world. He vowed that “every dollar, every nickel” would go toward the flights.

They didn’t. Kraser was not what he seemed. Not even a pilot, Kraser was unmasked as a con man who concocted the stories to bilk the gullible. In May, a judge sentenced Kraser to 21 months in the slammer.

These are just two of the hundreds of suspected fakes and frauds who have been caught by a phalanx of federal and state investigators fighting a flood of post-hurricane wrongdoing that continues to swell a year after Katrina hit last Aug. 29.

“It’s a full-employment act for FBI agents,” FBI assistant director James Burrus said.

At last count, there were at least 785 criminal cases under investigation by the Hurricane Katrina Task Force, a joint effort of 19 federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Postal Service, the Defense Department and even the Environmental Protection Agency. State prosecutors in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are similarly swamped. And scores more cases wait in the wings.

“The number of these Katrina fraud cases continue to build and already hundreds are pending in our office,” Mississippi U.S. Attorney Dan Lampton said.

A new Mississippi indictment was announced Thursday that charged four people with faking paperwork to show that a Pearl River County, Miss., debris-removal contractor had hauled away more than $716,000 worth of debris, when it actually had done no such thing.

The U.S. Justice Department said task-force investigations alone have so far resulted in charges against more than 380 individuals in 30 federal judicial districts across the country, according to a Justice official who was not authorized to be named.

Most of the cases fall into the same categories as Hinton and Kraser — individuals allegedly trying to bilk benefit checks from the government or “donations” from unsuspecting donors. Caught in the net have also been FEMA employees, local public officials, contractors and disaster-relief volunteers.

Abetting those looking to make a dirty buck is the sheer enormity of the amount of money up for grabs _ nearly $100 billion in public funds for relief, recovery and economic development.

Also contributing to the vast scope of apparent wrongdoing was the confusion that surrounded the weeks after Katrina struck and the pressure FEMA and other aid outfits were under to disburse money quickly to tens of thousands of displaced people.

Some government-spending watchdogs hold FEMA and other agencies to blame for fertilizing the fraud with their mismanagement and poor oversight. They also are concerned that prosecutors might be “cherry picking” relatively easy cases to rack up the numbers of investigations to demonstrate their diligence.

“Are we holding the big fish accountable?” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, which has been critical of the government’s performance.

FBI official Burrus says the answer to that is a resounding “yes.”

He says the bureau and the task force are relentless in their pursuit of those who are ripping off taxpayers and donors, whoever they are.

“We’re not overlooking anything,” Burrus said, invoking Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ vow to have “zero tolerance” for hurricane-related miscreants. “We prosecute everyone.”

Among those snared so far is the executive director of a nonprofit group charged with money laundering and filing false tax returns of more than $350,000. A hotel owner was charged with defrauding FEMA of $232,000 in false hotel-room charges.

Two temporary FEMA employees were arrested on charges of soliciting a $20,000 bribe in exchange for inflating a catering contract. And the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service have shut down 60 Web sites that appeared to be involved in fraud.

So far, FEMA and the Red Cross say they have amassed more than $8 million in disaster-aid funds that have been voluntarily returned by recipients. Some repayments have been accompanied by letters professing that they were mistakenly paid or confessing to fraud, while others have been anonymous remittances via money order. A few people have asked to arrange a payment plan for reimbursing the government for benefits they took but weren’t entitled to.

Others apparently ponied up to avoid criminal charges. “(I)ndividuals have returned funds because they believed they were not entitled to the funds under any circumstances and wanted to avoid possible prosecution,” a Katrina task-force progress report concluded.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com.)