Two Florida women were indicted last week for allegedly filing fraudulent applications for relief funding for damages caused by Hurricane Irma in separate cases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office Middle District of Florida announced.
Bernita Willette Carswell of Jacksonville and Deannajo White of Suwannee County were both charged with disaster assistance fraud. New sources didn’t name attorneys for the two women.
According to the indictment, in September 2017, Carswell and White allegedly falsified records concerning their homes when submitting applications for aid to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Carswell lied about the damage to her property and the need to move to a rental property in Jacksonville, the indictment states. It is unclear what information White falsified in her application.
Cases of this kind aren’t uncommon after natural disasters. In November 2019, Karen Latrice Houston of Tampa was convicted on three counts of theft of government funds after she allegedly fraudulently obtained Hurricane Irma disaster relief money.
Houston, 37, allegedly filed a false application with FEMA in September 2017 to obtain disaster relief benefits. She claimed her home in Lakeland was damaged in the storm, but reports indicate she had actually been evicted from the home earlier in 2019.
Houston was given just over $21,000 in FEMA funds after filing the alleged fraudulent application. She was found guilty by a federal jury and faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on each count. A sentencing date hasn’t been set.
Disaster relief assistance is often abused because FEMA tries to use its resources immediately after a disaster, often with inadequate oversight. The agency assists with cleanup, home repairs, replacement of property, and shelter for individuals displaced by disasters. In its haste to provide aid, the agency may not be as careful in vetting the individuals it assists, which can lead to cases of fraud.
Hurricane Irma caused approximately $50 billion in damage when it reached Florida in September 2017. FEMA approved over 770,000 individual assistance applications from residents for damage caused by the hurricane. The agency set aside over $1 billion for its Individual & Households Program.
Disaster fraud is defined as the deliberate act to defraud the government after a disaster. Federal agents often detect fraud by using automated systems to cross-check information provided by applicants with other agencies. Agents also conduct field inspections to verify the damages for every person who applies for individual assistance.
Filing a false claim with FEMA is a felony with a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison, in addition to hefty fines and restitution paid to the government. Anyone who suspects fraud, abuse, or allegations of mismanagement involving disaster relief funds should contact the National Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721.
South Florida Fraud Attorney
If you are involved in a fraud case, then you should hire an attorney. Contact Brian Silber, P.A. to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of South Florida’s most experienced fraud attorneys.
Sources: 1.17.20 jacksonville woman accused of submitting false claim for fema benefits related to irma.pdf & 1.15.20 suwannee county woman arrested for submitting false claim for fema benefits related to irma.pdf