Such is human nature that some sorry souls will defraud disaster relief funds at the expense of the victims who really need the help. And so it happened with hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but what was especially dismaying about that relief effort was the amount and the extent of fraud.
Congressional investigators say the fraud might have been as high as $1.4 billion, as much as 16 percent of the relief assistance.
Some of the money was obtained through straightforward dishonesty. Congress’ General Accountability Office said about $5.3 million went to registrants who claimed post office boxes as their damaged homes. One claimant listed a cemetery for a home address, and other claimants were prison inmates. The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid one person rental assistance at the same time it was paying to put the person up in a hotel — in Hawaii.
Also subject to abuse were the debit cards FEMA issued to help victims with daily living expenses while they got back on their feet. Among other things, the cards were used — meaning the taxpayers paid — for New Orleans Saints season tickets, a divorce attorney, a Caribbean vacation, pornographic videos and expensive champagne.
FEMA says it is working to recover the money from bogus claims, but the pace of the effort — only $16.8 million identified as improperly awarded — needs to be picked up, and a few timely prosecutions might serve as a salutary warning to would-be scam artists as a new hurricane season begins.
Some fraud and waste are inevitable in any relief effort. A premium is placed on getting the money out quickly, and that entails placing a certain amount of trust in the applicants. But clearly FEMA needs to be more vigilant and tighten its procedures. A simple computer check would have shown that more than 1,000 applicants for housing assistance were already being housed at government expense — at federal and state penitentiaries in six states.
Confidence in the integrity and efficiency of federal relief aid is essential if Congress is to extend it and the public support it.