|FEMA issued debit cards worth $2,000 in the weeks following Katrina. To date, more than 1,300 people have been indicted for Katrina-related crimes, including stealing government funds.|
In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government began pouring billions of dollars into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region to aid recovery efforts—and the criminal justice system braced for the fraud and corruption that would surely follow all that money.
There have also been many cases of public corruption associated with Katrina, said David Welker, special agent in charge of the FBI's New Orleans office. “When it comes to criminal activity and public officials trying to siphon off funds meant for projects to rebuild the area,” he said, “we maintain a zero tolerance policy. We won’t stop pursuing these cases no matter how much time passes.”
The task force—comprised of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, as well as the United States Attorneys’ Offices—is located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and it has not lacked for business.
To date, more than 1,300 individuals have been indicted for Katrina-related crimes. The task force has received more than 36,000 complaints since 2005, and has referred some 22,500 to law enforcement for possible investigation. The FBI has received nearly 4,800 of those referrals.
Some of the cases are shocking. Earlier this month, a former chief of police in Lumberton, Mississippi was sentenced to 2.5 years in jail after being convicted on eight federal fraud charges in connection with lying to receive aid for a property that was not his primary residence. The former chief was found guilty of stealing government funds, lying to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and committing wire fraud. At sentencing, the judge ordered him to repay FEMA more than $29,000 and noted that he had betrayed the public trust and seriously tarnished the image of law enforcement.
Welker says that in New Orleans alone, public corruption and government fraud cases increased 243 percent during 2006-2008 compared with the same period before Katrina, 2003-2005. Putting a stop to this fraud and corruption has prevented an economic loss estimated at more than $55 million, he said.
The FBI is also targeting violent crime in New Orleans. The city had a high murder rate before Katrina, and it’s even worse now. The New Orleans Violent Crime Task Force was established a year ago to target the “baddest of the bad,” those criminals who ride the revolving door of the criminal justice system. The task force consists of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers co-located at our New Orleans office and focuses on violent crimes including kidnapping, carjacking, armed robbery, and murder.
“Katrina had such an impact on the region,” Welker explained. “It turned this world upside down.” When the storm hit, our headquarters in the city was ruined, and many Bureau employees there lost their homes. But now, as then, he said, “despite the circumstances, the work of the office doesn’t stop. Bureau culture is to work until the job is done—and that’s just what we intend to do with Katrina crimes.”