Four charged in alleged FEMA scam

August 19, 2009 4:51:28 PM PDT
U.S. Attorneys have charged four Hurricane Katrina evacuees with wrongfully obtaining rental assistance from FEMA after having purchased new, furnished homes financed by Oprah Winfrey's charitable organization.Darlene McGruder Poole, 30, of Houston, and her sister, Lashona McGruder Victor, 37, of La Place, Louisiana, are charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

Kiesha Murphy, 34, of Houston, and Angela Payne, aka Angela McKinnies, 38, of Houston, are each charged in separate indictments with making false statements to FEMA and theft of government property.

After the destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Oprah Winfrey, through her charitable organization "Oprah's Angel Network," partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build and furnish homes for 65 families forced to relocate to Houston. The majority of these homes were built on Asheburton Springs Drive, which was re-named "Angel Lane."

The indictment against Poole alleges that she continued to submit declarations of need for rental assistance despite her August 2006 purchase of a home on Angel Lane. Poole had already received more than $23,000 in legitimate disaster assistance after being displaced from her home in New Orleans.

In support of her fraudulent rental assistance claims, Poole is alleged to have also stated to FEMA that she continued to be unemployed when the indictment alleges she was working for Harris County in the Community Supervision and Corrections Department.

In December 2006, Poole's sister, Victor, allegedly registered with FEMA as the landlord of Poole's home on Angel Lane, and the two submitted fraudulent lease agreements and fictitious rental receipts in support of Poole's bogus claim for continued rental assistance. The indictment alleges that as a result of their conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, FEMA ultimately paid the defendants more than $14,000 for rental assistance to which they were not entitled.

If convicted, Victor and Poole each face up to 20 years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine and three years supervised release.

According to allegations in a separate indictment, Murphy received more than $17,000 in legitimate disaster assistance after being displaced from New Orleans by Katrina. Murphy purchased her house on Angel Lane in July 2006, but she is accused of nevertheless continuing to submit declarations of need for rental assistance to FEMA. The indictment alleges she also provided fictitious rental receipts purporting to show that she was renting her home on Angel Lane as opposed to being the homeowner.

Additionally, Murphy is accused of fraudulently obtaining disaster unemployment assistance by falsely claiming to be unemployed from March through June 2006, when the indictment alleges she was working at Memorial Hermann Hospital. Murphy is accused of wrongfully obtaining more than $12,000 in benefits as a result of her fraudulent filings with FEMA.

Payne, also originally from New Orleans, purchased her home on Angel Lane in July 2006, and according to allegations in a third indictment, subsequently submitted fictitious rental receipts and other documents in support of a fraudulent claim for continued rental assistance.

Although charged separately, if convicted, Murphy and Payne each face up to five years imprisonment on each of their false statement charges, up to 10 years imprisonment for theft of government property, a fine of up to $250,000 and three years supervised release.

Anyone suspecting criminal activity involving disaster assistance programs can make an anonymous report by calling 1-866-720-5721 or emailing disaster@leo.gov.

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