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Texans asked to pay back $1.26 million in FEMA money

Monday, April 24, 2006

The federal government is asking 625 people in Texas to pay back a total of $1.26 million in recovery aid they shouldn't have received after Hurricane Rita.

Texas families have received more than $592 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the September storm, but the agency is sending out letters asking for money back.

Most of the money FEMA wants, $1.14 million, was incorrectly paid for damage to homes that were not the owners' primary residences, FEMA spokeswoman Hannah Vick said. Damages to secondary residences are ineligible for FEMA money under federal law.

In other cases, the same person received multiple $2,000 FEMA payments, or multiple people from the same household received the $2,000.

FEMA began the process called recoupment, which is similar to an audit, in mid-March. Vick did not know when the agency would complete the process and stop sending letters. A similar process is ongoing for payments made after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.

People who receive a letter requesting repayment have 30 days to repay the amount in full or set up a payment plan. After 30 days, 2 percent interest begins accruing. Residents can appeal FEMA's decision to seek repayment, but interest still would start after 30 days.

In Mississippi, FEMA has sent letters to 2,044 Mississippi residents asking for repayment of $4.7 million in benefits.

Normally, 2 percent to 3 percent of FEMA funds paid after a disaster must be returned because payments were made improperly, FEMA officials have said. Sometimes errors are due to incomplete information in the application process. Sometimes, FEMA workers improperly approve payments.

Cases of suspected fraud or misrepresentation in the application process are turned over to law enforcement officials.

Federal auditors have faulted FEMA for much of the benefit abuse after last fall's hurricanes, citing an inadequate accounting system. The federal Government Accountability Office has said thousands of inappropriate payments were made because people could repeatedly apply for and collect benefits.

In February, audits by the General Accounting Office and the Department of Homeland Security found that as many as 900,000 of the 2.5 million applicants who received aid under FEMA's emergency cash assistance program -- which included $2,000 debit cards given to evacuees -- were based on duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names.

Also in February, the Justice Department said federal prosecutors charged 212 people with fraud, theft and other counts in scams related to Gulf Coast hurricanes.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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