By MELANIE KAUFMAN
One of POGO's areas of concern is the recovery of "improper payments." Many agencies have collected only a small percentage of the taxpayer money they have wrongly spent through overpayments, duplicate payments, payments for services not actually rendered, payments to the incorrect person or group, and payments to vendors that do not even exist. POGO looked into the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) improper payment record and found that FEMA has dished out millions of dollar to the wrong people since 2005, but has only recovered roughly one third of it.
POGO submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking information about payments owed to and actually collected by FEMA as restitutions “by individuals or groups found guilty of fraud relating to private-sector and government efforts to help victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma from 2005 to 2010.” FEMA disclosed that only 34 percent of payments deemed improper by courts have been recovered between fiscal years (FY) 2005 and 2010:
|Fiscal Year (FY)||Billed||Payments||Difference|
Just after Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, FEMA provided more than $7 billion in individual assistance payments to victims. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General (IG) report speculated that $643 million of the $7 billion was improperly spent (FEMA is within the DHS). Based on FEMA’s numbers, of the estimated $643 million in improper spending, $16.5 million had been subject to a finding of fraud, with only $5.5 million collected.
To address this issue, United States Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales established the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force. The Task Force published a 2007 report describing its mission of “deterring, detecting, and prosecuting unscrupulous individuals who try to take advantage of the Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma disasters.” Gonzales said the overall goal was to “stop people who seek to illegally take for themselves the money that is intended for the victims of the hurricanes” and give back the taxpayers’ money. As FEMA’s 34 percent return rate suggests, however, more work needs to be done recovering improper expenditures.