Disaster Fraud

After natural disasters, prosecutors and law enforcement are particularly vigilant about catching and prosecutors individuals who attempt to defraud the federal government and charitable organizations. Both state and federal agencies have just begun charging and prosecuting individuals who misrepresented facts to charities and the government in order to obtain money which was designated for true victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced the indictment early this year of a woman accused of stealing around $195,000.00 of aid given to the area in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. She was further indicted of submitting false documentation and altering case files as a Disaster Case Manager. Several others were involved, charged with cashing checks from the stolen funds and depositing them into their personal bank accounts.

Regina Lewis, age 32, worked as a Disaster Case Manager for the Council of People’s Organization (COPO), a New York City charity. She was charged with compiling cases for victims of Hurricane Sandy, such as detailing their needs and developing recovery plans. She presented these cases at meeting where other charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army committed to providing financial aid so the plan could be achieved. For just under one year, Lewis submitted false applications requesting money for Hurricane Sandy victims, altering their names, and even creating fake case files. The files named her accomplices, including her boyfriend, as landlords of the victims who needed assistance. After funding became available for these ‘victims,’ Lewis would collect the checks and distribute them to the other defendants for personal use. The indictment alleges that the funds were used for things like dining, shopping, and even paying for insurance.

The indictment charged the defendants with Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree, Grand Larceny in the Second, Third, and Fourth Degrees, and Falsifying business Records in the First Degree. These crimes were non-violent, so the defendants likely do not face any jail time; however, they can be fined and ordered to pay restitution to their victims.

Shortly before this indictment, a Staten Island couple was charged in federal court with fraud relating to Hurricane Sandy Relief. Nagwa Elsilimy and Ahmed Arafa were charged in Brooklyn with making false statements to FEMA and HUD, resulting in their receipt of over $750,000.00 in the disaster relief programs stemming from Hurricane Sandy.

The defendants are alleged to have misrepresented that a home in Staten Island was their primary residence, when they had actually abandoned it months before the storm. They obtained money intended for people actually made homeless by Sandy. According to the criminal complaint, the defendants submitted material misrepresentations when applying for disaster relief. At the time Sandy hit Staten island, the alleged primary residence was actually vacant – and had been so for at least seven months.

Finally, as recently as January 12, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the unsealing of an indictment charging two men with mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud regarding New York’s clean up efforts after Sandy.

In the aftermath of Sandy, New York contracted with private vendors to remove debris left on roadways. FEMA reimbursed New York for 90% of the costs associated with the debris removal. The vendors were required to submit paper worked which tracked machines, and date and time of usage, called Time Certificates. The vendors were paid based on information contained in these documents. The indictment alleges that Richard Griffin and Frank Gillette owned and operated businesses which were to assist a vendor in the clean up. They submitted fraudulent time certificates for work that was not performed, obtaining over $80,000.00 in payments from the state of New York. If convicted, each defendant faces up to 30 years in prison for each count.

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