FEMA, Fraud, Florida, and Some More Spectacularly Bad Journalism

The AP reports (emphasis mine):
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave more than $31 million to thousands of Floridians who may not have qualified for any disaster aid after Hurricane Frances, one of several findings of a federal audit that said the aid system was vulnerable to fraud.

The finding, released to a Senate committee Wednesday, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted requests for aid in Miami-Dade County on verbal assurances, without proof of damage like repair receipts or proof of ownership.


FEMA chief Michael D. Brown said he regretted the findings, but said such problems are not widespread in his agency.

"While sadly in every disaster there will be those who attempt to abuse or defraud FEMA, I am pleased by the report's findings verifying our own initial conclusions of nothing widespread," Brown told the committee in a prepared statement.
1. The AP isn’t doing its job.
2. Brown’s a fucking liar.

It’s a strangely comforting thought to many people that the problem is a result of “those who attempt to abuse or defraud FEMA,” because the news is always rife with stories about scammers; these FEMA-defrauding crooks (we are meant to tell ourselves) are cut from the same cloth as the yokels who claim to have found fingers in their fast food chili, or get caught on video by the local news channel playing golf while they’re collecting disability payments from the government. And it’s a convenient excuse for the government, too. It’s not our fault; come on—you know how the world’s full of people who want something for nothing! And because there really are people like that in the world, we accept it.

But not this time. This time, I’m afraid, I’ve been paying attention.

First, in March, I wrote about a story in the Sun-Sentinel that revealed, in spite of the Brown’s claims that FEMA wasn’t playing politics with hurricane aid distribution (which, mind you, was taking place just before the hotly contested presidential election in a swing state governed by the president’s brother), a FEMA consultant by the name of Glenn Garcelon had authored a memo outlining exactly how they could and should play politics with the aid funds, including a recommendation that "top-level people from FEMA and the White House need to develop a communication strategy and an agreed-upon set of themes and communications objectives."

If that wasn’t enough to encourage the AP to note somewhere in its ridiculously one-sided story that this fraud may have started in the White House, instead of allowing Brown to place the entirety of the responsibility for this mess on conmen, surely the fact that an email message from the state's labor chief, Susan Pareigis (four days after whose request for federal assistance Labor Secretary Elaine Chao traveled to Florida personally to award the money) sent to Governor Bush asking that he pass on her appreciation “for such an instantaneous response" and forwarded to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card less than 10 minutes later is enough to raise the possibility that this might have had the president’s attention. Maybe, just maybe, this massive fraud isn’t just down to clever swindlers, but a government that was willing to look the other way as any deadbeat with a pulse and a willingness to take advantage of “free money” stepped forward with his or her hand out. Maybe, just maybe, 9/11 wasn't the only tragedy this administration exploited for its reelection, using the hurricanes as a perfect cover for funneling all kinds of money into the hands of important swing voters.

And it wasn’t only rental assistance and property replacement costs. In April, I wrote about another story in the Sun-Sentinel in which Dr. Stephen Nelson, head of Florida's Medical Examiners Commission, was quoted as saying that the number of deaths deemed hurricane-related by FEMA was “just an incredible number -- a difference of 192. This is the Free Funeral Payment Act."
FEMA worker Mary Ann Carlisle tried to make it easy for the medical examiner, providing "sample letters" he could use as a guide.

"Mr. James Doe, a patient under my care during Hurricane [blank], was terminally ill when evacuated from his home," said FEMA's sample letter from a doctor. "The stress and trauma of the storm and evacuation may have, in my opinion, hastened his demise. Any help you can give Mrs. James Doe would be greatly appreciated."

Carlisle even included a sample letter for terminally ill hospice patients.
Brown should in no way be asserting that the problem primarily lies with those outwith the agency, or even that this was a limited problem within the agency, and the AP should not allow him to get away with such blatant misrepresentation of the facts. Why is Garcelon’s memo not mentioned? Why not Pareigis’ email? There is every reason to believe, and some evidence behind the suspicion, that the White House knew about what was happening with FEMA’s hurricane aid distribution and not only didn’t mind, but encouraged the quick dispersion of federal funds to those even remotely affected by the hurricanes.

Back in March and April, the White House directed all inquiries to FEMA. Now FEMA is placing responsibility onto some of its employees and the recipients of misappropriated aid. The funding went from George Bush all the down to Joe Schmoe in the Sunshine State, and now the buck’s getting passed his way, too.

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