Did some New Orleans residents take us for a ride?

http://blogging.la/archives/images/2006/06/swingersKatrina-thumb.jpgLike many Los Angeles residents I didn’t think twice about making a sizeable donation to victims of Hurricane Katrina. So it came as a bit of a disappointment to learn that some victims were squandering their relief funds on luxuries. From the LA Times:

Sex-change operations, vacations to the Dominican Republic and wild nights at strip clubs were all bought on the government’s dime by both con artists and legitimate victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The surprise comes from this same editorial, entitled “A hurricane of fraud?”, which comes close to defending such sloth.

…try to keep that knee from jerking — although FEMA’s oversight was lacking, wasted money is an inevitable byproduct of providing rapid emergency assistance.

The money came from $2000 value debit cards given to select victims by FEMA that were “to be spent according to his or her judgment” without follow up accounting.

While this isn’t an issue of legality, there is a clear abuse of the public’s trust… on behalf of the public. I was even more suprised when I read a fellow Metroblogger in New Orleans defend these actions – because he also received the $2000 debit cards, and blew his wad:

You know what I spent my FEMA money on? A laptop, booze, eating out, music, seersucker suits, etc. Luxuries. Friends spent it on flying V guitars, drugs, etc. Note that I did not ask FEMA for $2,000, nor did I ask for the subsequent $2,300 in rental assistance. In fact, I was living rent free and still being paid by my employer the entire time, but they still put the cash directly into my bank account.

Chris Martel justifies this as human nature. The LA Times says only 16% of the cash was misused.

I say either way, I want my donation back… okay, I don’t really. But I certainly would have thought twice had I known where some of this money would have gone. Maybe, at the very least, I’d have given 16% less.

Just because Chris and other didn’t need the money, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t have passed it off or used it for someone who did.

(photo by Nicholas A via Flickr… photo is of Jo, a waitress at Swingers who gave all her evening’s tips to Katrina relief… totalling over $500. source: LAist)

6 thoughts on “Did some New Orleans residents take us for a ride?”

  1. David:

    You raise an important issue that we as a nation must address forthright and logically – so that such abuse (there can be no other rightful description) does not take place in the future.

    Of important distinction is that the funds in question were generated by (some will say taken from) taxpayers and not one of the many non-profit entities that gathered discretionary donations from well-meaning persons.

    To that end, we are each in some way accountable for what has happened. There are of course, many factors in play here, and we can only hope that those in power (across the geopolitical spectrum) who would prefer to see themselves helping the unfortunate and afflicted will focus in the future on strategically addressing critical need rather than impulsively fulfilling simple desire.

    Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

    Brian Humphrey
    Public Service Officer
    Los Angeles Fire Department

  2. My main issue is that personal responsibility often is ignored in all this – clearly, some people flaunted the cash, and then blamed the government’s failures for their own indiscretions.

    I don’t hold FEMA’s handling, the Bush Admin, Mayor Nagin, or anyone else in high regard with respect to the handling of the disaster response, and since we live in a democracy, we’re all certainly responsible for their appointments. That said, I don’t think the idea of handing out these cards is a bad idea – we SHOULD be able to trust that those that need or receive the funds will use them responsibly. And if they don’t, they deserve to be criticized.

  3. The conventional wisdom would have it that a donator is justified in feeling miffed that some of the people who were given relief money were crooks. But it is irrelevant. The spent money benefitted merchants and helped the local economy. The donators learned the valuable lesson that crooks do not have the word “crook” written on their forehead. What is the problem? cyquick.wordpress.com

  4. Yes, almost $8000 has been shown to have been abused out of a few tens of millions. Personally, I’ll keep your remarks in mind when the Big One comes and the Red Cross is asking for donations and FEMA is rushing to you aid.

  5. Cy:
    Indeed, the money fueling the local economy is helpful. But my point isn’t that these people who wasted the money aren’t thieves, just unscrupulous.

    I imagine the wasted $8000 you mention is a mere typo. The government is guessing that 16% of the millions was wasted.
    And if you’d rather think twice about giving to the Red Cross because of my concerns vs. some Katrina benefeciaries actions, then I think your priorities are out of whack.

  6. For what it is worth — I know (first hand) that money donated to The Salvation Army goes to the cause the donor requests/specifies. For example, when the hurricanes ripped through Florida, The Salvation Army first provided immediate, day after the ‘cane relief (such as food, water, clothes — to both victims and relief workers) , then gave cash to area merchants, who were affected, such as small grocery stores, so they could continue to buy from their vendors, etc., to in turn give to those in need.
    The Salvation Army responds immediately and is morally driven to be a good steward of contirbutions.

    They don’t spend your donations on PR — so many folks never realize they extent of the Salvation Army’s work.

    But, having seen it first-hand, I know where my future donations for those in need will be funnelled.

    I realize there is always the human factor at work and there will always be rip-off artists. But I do know The Savation Army works hard to reduce this factor.

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