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FEMA Chief Brown Paid Millions to Fla. Residents Unaffected by ‘04 Hurricane to Help Bush Win Votes During Presidential

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Michael Brown, the embattled head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, approved payments in excess of $31 million in taxpayer money to thousands of Florida residents who were unaffected by Hurricane Frances and three other hurricanes last year in an effort to help President Bush win a majority of votes in that state during his reelection campaign, according to published reports.

"Some Homeland Security sources said FEMA's efforts to distribute funds quickly after Frances and three other hurricanes that hit the key political battleground state of Florida in a six-week period last fall were undertaken with a keen awareness of the looming presidential elections, " according to a May 19 Washington Post story.

Homeland Security sources told the Post that after the hurricanes that Brown "and his allies [recommended] him to succeed Tom Ridge as Homeland Security secretary because of their claim that he helped deliver Florida to President Bush by efficiently responding to the Florida hurricanes. "

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel uncovered emails from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that confirmed those allegations and directly implicated Brown as playing politics at the expense of hurricane victims.

"As the second hurricane in less than a month bore down on Florida last fall, a federal [FEMA] consultant predicted a "huge mess" that could reflect poorly on President Bush and suggested that his re-election staff be brought in to minimize any political liability, records show, " the Sentinel reported in a March 23 story.

"Two weeks later, a Florida official summarizing the hurricane response wrote that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was handing out housing assistance "to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind."

The records the Sentinel obtained were contained in hundreds of pages of Gov. Jeb Bush's storm-related e-mails the paper received from the governor 's office under the threat of a lawsuit.

The explosive charges of mismanagement of disaster relief funds made against Brown and FEMA were confirmed earlier this year following a four-month investigation by Richard Skinner, the Department of Homeland Security 's inspector general. Skinner looked into media reports alleging that residents of Miami-Dade were receiving windfall payments from FEMA to cover losses from Hurricane Frances they never incurred.
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Hurricane Frances hit Hutchinson Island, Fla., about 100 miles north of Dade County, on Sept. 5. Miami-Dade officials described damage there from heavy rain and winds of up to 45 mph as ''minimal,'' according to the Post.
Indeed. A May 14 story in the Sun-Sentinel said: "Miami-Dade County residents collected Hurricane Frances aid for belongings they didn't own, temporary housing they never requested and cars worth far less than the government paid, according to a federal audit that questions millions in storm payouts.
Responding to those allegations, Brown held a news conference Jan. 11 blaming the overpayments on a "computer glitch " and said the disbursements were far less than the $31 million that was cited in news reports and involved 3,500 people. Moreover, to silence his critics who said that Hurricane Frances barely touched down in Miami-Dade, Brown cited a report by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to prove that there were legitimate hurricane conditions there and as a result that a bulk of the payments was legitimate.

But according to the Sun-Sentinel, NOAA had refuted the weather maps Brown claimed to have obtained from them. That report prompted Congressman Robert Wexler to send off a scathing letter to President Bush calling for Brown 's resignation.

Bush rebuffed Wexler. However, the DHS ' inspector general launched a probe to determine how widespread the problems were involving overpayments to Miami-Dade residents. In May, the inspector general released his report. What he found was damning.

"The review found waste and poor controls in every level of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's assistance program and challenges the designation of Miami-Dade as a disaster area when the county "did not incur any hurricane force winds, tornados or other adverse weather conditions that would cause widespread damage."

In identifying one of the overpayments, the inspector general 's report said FEMA paid $10 million to replace hundreds of household items even though only a bed was reported to be damaged, the inspector general 's report said.
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"Millions of individuals and households became eligible to apply for [money], straining FEMA's limited inspection resources to verify damages and making the program more susceptible to potential fraud, waste and abuse," the report states.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, said during a committee hearing in May that Brown "approved massive payouts to replace thousands of televisions, air conditioners, beds and other furniture, as well as a number of cars, without receipts, or proof of ownership or damage, and based solely on verbal statements by the residents, sometimes made in fleeting encounters at fast-food restaurants. "

"It was a pay first, ask questions later approach,'' Collins said. ''The inspector general's report identifies a number of significant control weaknesses that create a potential for widespread fraud, erroneous payments and wasteful practices.''

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Jason Leopold is Deputy Managing Editor of Truthout.org and the founding editor of the online investigative news magazine The Public Record, http://www.pubrecord.org. He is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit (more...)
 

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