Oversight of hurricane relief efforts keeps inspectors general busy

By the end of October, federal inspector general offices had opened 92 investigations of potential misconduct in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, according to a recent report.

The inquiries stemmed in part from more than 2,000 hotline complaints and have resulted in 23 arrests and 12 indictments governmentwide, according to the first President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency biweekly report on hurricane oversight.

The report includes information from all federal agencies involved in hurricane relief. The numbers are expected rise since this is the first in an ongoing series of biweekly reports, said Tamara Faulkner, a Homeland Security Department spokeswoman.

Misconduct could involve anything from fraudulent claims for government benefits to improper contracting actions.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a "multitude" of potentially fraudulent benefits claims have been filed since the hurricanes struck the Gulf Coast. False disaster claims carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

"Through computer databases, informant tips and hotline tips, we are receiving information of fraudulent claims," said Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard Skinner in a statement. "Those who have made such claims, whether to the Federal Emergency Management Agency or any other government entity, should take stock of their situation and seriously consider withdrawing their claims or voluntarily returning monies already disbursed to them."

The DHS inspector general's office plans to assign auditors and investigators to work on hurricane-related issues for as long as a decade and has sent three fraud investigative teams to the Gulf Coast region, Faulkner said. Each team consists of three auditors and three investigators, but that number is flexible depending on needs, she said.

More than 400 auditors, investigators and managers from 16 agencies, including ones within DHS, have been assigned to review about 3,000 contracts worth more than $5.1 billion and more than $26.9 million in purchase card spending, the PCIE report stated. The auditors will review the contracts to ensure that they fall within federal guidelines and are in the government's best interest.

Nearly all of the contracts subject to review -- 2,777 contracts worth $3.95 billion -- were issued by DHS agencies. The reviews also will cover 99 Defense Department contracts worth more than $1 billion.

Skinner is coordinating the inspector general oversight activities through his role as chair of the PCIE's Homeland Security Round Table. He also is working with the Government Accountability Office to monitor purchase card transactions.

"With this much damage, money and [the] number of agencies involved, the oversight task necessarily encompasses more than just the DHS [inspector general]," Skinner on Wednesday told the special House committee examining the events surrounding the hurricane.

Agency inspectors general have also established a Hurricane Katrina Contract Audit Task Force to coordinate their work, according to Skinner. It includes auditors from GAO, the General Services Administration, the Pentagon and other agencies.

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