Friday, August 15, 2008 something

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Contractor faces new fraud claims

A Slidell contractor is behind bars for the second time in six months on allegations he defrauded and stole from Hurricane Katrina victims, Slidell police said Tuesday.

James J. Moore, 47, 175 Meadowmoss Drive, was arrested Monday while he was working on another house. He was booked on two warrants alleging theft over $500, police spokesman Capt. Kevin Foltz said.

The latest arrest came after an Arrowhead Drive resident whose home was damaged by Katrina told police Moore took two payments totaling $15,000 in October to remove the home and its foundation from the property, Foltz said. The homeowner was unable to contact Moore after he removed the home but left the foundation, Foltz said.

Police arrested Moore, who was out on bond after being booked on three counts of theft over $500 in December, after one of the homeowners noticed him working on another home in Slidell, Foltz said.

Moore first came to the attention of authorities in November, after a homeowner in the Palms Springs neighborhood told police Moore had taken about $1,000 in roofing materials the homeowner had purchased, Foltz said. The homeowner had hired Moore to fix the roof of the house, Foltz said.

A few weeks after the first complaint, Moore contacted the owner of Water Tight Roofing and asked that the company purchase $1,800 worth of materials for the Palm Springs job, Foltz said. Moore reimbursed the company with a check but put a "stop payment" on it after the materials were delivered, he said.

In December, the Palm Springs homeowner told police that although Moore had been paid $15,000 for the repairs, he had only completed about $6,000 of the work, Foltz said.

Moore was booked Dec. 18 on three counts of theft over $500 and released on a $2,500 bond, Foltz said.

Slidell police also are investigating another complaint from a fourth person who alleged Moore defrauded him on $250,000 worth of work, Foltz said.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Subsidy offered to get residents out of trailers

Scores of St. Tammany Parish residents still living in FEMA trailers were told by federal officials this week that a pilot rent subsidy program is available for them to move into homes and apartments.

But those residents, at meetings in Slidell and Folsom, were also told that they may have to move out of the area due to a local shortage of rental housing units.

"You have to make some real hard decisions," said Carl Jurison, a senior adviser for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Those hard decisions have to be made as an Aug. 29 parish deadline approaches that will require the more than 1,200 parish residents in FEMA trailers to find another place to live.

Parish President Kevin Davis has announced that on Aug. 30, the parish will resume enforcing zoning and other codes that prohibit travel trailers as homes on private property. Those still in trailers on private property will face citations for code violations and fines up to $500 per day, parish officials have warned.

At Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Slidell Wednesday night, about 150 visibly distraught and nervous residents listened to FEMA and HUD officials explain the pilot program.

"Where is Kevin Davis?" asked Winnie Ordone of Lacombe. "How come he's not here to see what's going on? . . . Come Aug. 29, what am I supposed to do? Start paying fines or move to New York? I don't know."

Ordone, who works for the School Board's Head Start program in Lacombe, said she and her 12-year-old son have lived in a FEMA trailer since Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home in Lacombe in 2005. Ordone said the trailer is on "higher ground" property she bought after the storm. She said she has been trying to save money to buy a mobile home that meets parish codes to put on her property.

"It's not like I've been sitting around for three years doing nothing," Ordone said.

A neighbor on Pontchartrain Drive in Lacombe, Larrisa Young, said the prospect of having to move out of the area is disturbing. "My kids ask me every day, 'Where are we going to go?' " said Young, a custodian at Fontainebleau High School

Young said her rental home was destroyed by Katrina. She now lives in a small FEMA trailer with her three children and a 7-month-old grandchild. The trailer is on family property where she hopes to eventually build or put a home, she said.

"We want to stay here," Young said. "I don't want to uproot my kids and family."

Ordone, Young and others at the meetings in Slidell and Folsom filled out paperwork and huddled individually with FEMA and HUD counselors to sign up for the Disaster Housing Assistance Program.

Under the HUD program, FEMA counselors work with residents to find a rental home or apartment and sign a lease with the landlord. HUD then pays the rent for the Katrina victim.

Jurison said a person only has to be qualified for FEMA assistance to qualify for the subsidy program. The program pays up to the fair market value of the rental property through February 2009, Jurison said. Subsidies for people over 62 or who are disabled can continue under the program, he said.

In March 2009, those who are younger than 62, not disabled and meet low-income requirements will be shifted into regular HUD housing or rent voucher programs, Jurison said. The subsidies will end in March for those who don't qualify for HUD programs.

"So, think beyond March 2009," FEMA adviser Gail Tate told the residents. "Get something you can afford" for when the subsidies are no longer available.

The parish deadline to move out of FEMA trailers does not apply to trailers in mobile home parks. But Tate said by March 2009, FEMA will require all trailer residents to move

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Woman accused of Road Home fraud

In the first federal case alleging Road Home fraud, a New Orleans woman was charged Friday with stealing $132,000 in homeowner aid for an Uptown home she did not rightfully own.

A federal grand jury in New Orleans handed up two felony counts against Barbara Simmons Dowl, 46: a count of theft of government funds and a count of wire fraud. She got an $85,930 check directly from the Road Home, financed by U.S. Housing and Urban Development money, and also caused the program to wire the other $46,000 of her grant to the Small Business Administration to pay off an SBA loan in her name, also for the property in question.

If convicted, Dowl faces as many as 30 years in prison, three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and possible forfeiture of her property. Contacted Friday, Dowl declined to comment.

In an elaborate scheme first exposed by The Times-Picayune in December, Dowl collected a Road Home grant for property previously owned by Nathaniel Dowl Jr., a man she identifies in court testimony as her ex-husband. Court records show Nathaniel Dowl lost the property in 2004 because of unpaid taxes.

After Hurricane Katrina, Nathaniel Dowl filed a "quit-claim deed" in New Orleans property records, falsely stating the city had sold the property at 8633 Zimpel St. to Barbara Dowl, even though in truth the city had sold it to local landlord and developer Brad Robinson and his wife, Michelle, two years earlier.

The deed is signed only by the supposed purchaser, Barbara Dowl, and not by a city official or the Robinsons. A judge declared it and other documents filed by the Dowls on the Zimpel Street property null and void.

"This is your money. This is my money. This is everybody's money," Brad Robinson said Friday. "There are people out there who deserve Road Home money who didn't get any while it went to people like the Dowls."

Nathaniel Dowl, a convicted thief and forger, faces separate state charges of filing false public records on multiple properties, including the quit-claim deed on 8633 Zimpel St., the one that allegedly helped Barbara Dowl collect the Road Home money.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the federal case remains under investigation. Federal officials are expected to closely follow the state case against Nathaniel Dowl, which is scheduled to resume in Orleans Parish Criminal Court next month, and federal authorities can file a superseding indictment in federal court if they want to add charges or additional defendants.

There is evidence that Nathaniel Dowl was involved in similar schemes with Barbara Dowl. Barbara Dowl testified in an August 2006 eviction case about her role in filing a nearly identical quit-claim deed on another property, owned by Tracey and Oscar Poydras. Under oath in First City Court, she indicated little understanding of the quit-claim deed she signed, said Nathaniel Dowl prepared all the documents and added that she simply did what her ex-husband told her.

Federal officials heralded Friday's indictment as a sign they are serious about preventing fraud in the Road Home program and said there will be more indictments to come.

"This prosecution, although the first in our district, will not by any means be the last," Letten said.

According to Tom Luke, HUD's special agent in charge of investigations in Mississippi and Louisiana, this is the first federal fraud charges for Road Home theft in Louisiana, while a parallel homeowner aid program in Mississippi has yielded 53 indictments, 41 convictions and about $3.6 million in frozen or recovered grant funds.

This is despite the fact that Louisiana's program has paid out five times as many grants as Mississippi's.

Officials ascribe the relatively low levels of Road Home fraud to the maze-like verification measures in Louisiana's program, the policies that also have been blamed for slowing grant payouts.

Although Friday's indictment alleges Barbara Dowl also collected an SBA loan on the property she did not own, she has not been charged with fraud for that because she was living in Atlanta when she applied for the loan and a fraud investigation continues in that district, said Matthew Issman, SBA's special agent in charge in New Orleans.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

FEMA gives away Katrina donations

In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave away $85 million of donated items and household supplies originally intended for Katrina victims.

The Louisiana agency that deals with government surplus was offered the goods but turned them down.

"Somewhere in this big bureaucracy, links weren't made," said Adam Sharp, spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose office is scrambling to track FEMA's discards and possibly reroute them to UNITY of Greater New Orleans, which desperately needs goods for formerly homeless people it has placed in subsidized apartments. "If the supplies just have been moved from one warehouse to another, we hope to get some of them moved back to FEMA so that they can be re-offered to Louisiana and given to UNITY," he said.

For about two years, the goods were stored in one of FEMA's main emergency-supply warehouses, a 280,000-square-foot building in Fort Worth, Texas, according to FEMA's acting press secretary, James McIntyre. When the owner decided to demolish that warehouse earlier this year, FEMA staff went through and tagged unnecessary items.

The agency kept only items routinely used for disaster response: pallets of water, diapers, and cots. It jettisoned boxes of miscellaneous donated goods that came in droves after Katrina but never found owners: things such as shoes, clothing and coffee makers. Everything deemed unnecessary was transferred by FEMA to the U.S. General Services Administration, which distributes all surplus federal property.

GSA routinely offers property like this to government agencies, nonprofits, and GSA's state branches, including the Louisiana Federal Property Assistance Agency in Baton Rouge, which declined GSA's offer of FEMA's surplus from Fort Worth.

Despite UNITY's high-profile efforts to house 300 people over the past six months, the group was not officially registered with the Louisiana surplus agency. So the agency didn't know about UNITY's needs.

"LRA Director Paul Rainwater is taking the lead on determining where this serious breakdown in communication occurred," said Commissioner of Administration spokesman Michael DiResto. Rainwater has contacted FEMA, DiResto said, and "is working to pursue options for the state to make use of these important supplies."

Landrieu's office will help to expedite UNITY's registration, so the group will be cleared to receive any of FEMA's discards, if the senator's office is able to locate them, Sharp said. The state surplus agency also may have similar items in stock and can donate them when UNITY is properly registered.

UNITY is especially interested in what FEMA called "starter kits," which are not standard issue for domestic disasters but were purchased for the 143,000 Gulf Coast families who moved into FEMA trailers, some directly from emergency shelters. Every trailer household got a kit, which included items such as a broom, mop, pots and pans, plates, utensils, towels, bedding, blankets and household cleaners.

The 121 truckloads hauled from the Fort Worth warehouse included perhaps a few thousand kits, left over after all trailer families had been housed, McIntyre said.

For UNITY, these kits would be a godsend, said Martha Kegel, head of UNITY. "It's exactly the stuff we've had to beg from churches, businesses, sororities, schoolchildren and everyday citizens," she said.