WASHINGTON (AP) – The government squandered millions of dollars in Katrina disaster aid, including handing $2,000 debit cards to people who gave phony Social Security numbers and used the money for such items as a $450 tattoo, auditors said Monday.
Federal money also paid for $375-a-day beachfront condos and 10,777 trailers that were stuck in mud and unusable.
Overcharges, poor accounting and abuses will take “months or years” to rectify, the Government Accountability Office and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general concluded in preliminary reports on how billions of dollars in taxpayer money is being spent.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recognizes it “made many, many mistakes,” and is working on improvement, said Homeland Security inspector general Richard Skinner. “But they’re not where they should be. In some cases, the government will have little legal recourse to recoup payments to contractors for payments.”
Separately, the Justice Department said Monday that federal prosecutors had filed fraud, theft and other charges against 212 people accused of scams related to Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Forty people have pleaded guilty so far, the latest report by the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force said. Many defendants were accused of trying to obtain emergency aid, typically a $2,000 debit card, issued to hurricane victims by FEMA and the American Red Cross.
The GAO report found that up to 900,000 of the 2.5 million applicants who received aid under the emergency cash assistance program _ which included the debit cards given to evacuees _ based their requests on duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names.
In other instances, recipients improperly used their debit cards intended for food and shelter for $400 massages, a $450 tattoo, a $1,100 diamond engagement ring and $150 worth of products at “Condoms to Go.”