Houston Man Charged with Defrauding FEMA of Hurricane Katrina Disaster Funds

The federal government wasn't kidding when it said people trying to make a buck off the suffering following hurricanes Katrina and Rita would be punished.

United States Attorney Chuck Rosenberg announced a two-count indictment charging Barney Spears, 38, of Houston, with filing a false claim against the United States and making false statements to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Agents from the Department of Treasury's Office of Inspector General for Tax Administration, assisted by deputies of the St. John Parish Sheriff's Department, arrested Spears on Sept. 29 at a residence in LaPlace, La.

"In the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, millions of Americans dug into their pockets to help those in need," said Rosenberg. "A few, sadly, tried to profit from the misfortune of others. Given the immense suffering occasioned by this storm, these crimes are disturbing and disappointing."

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, and is not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

In response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA made available to eligible households $2,000 in expedited disaster assistance. The $2,000 in expedited disaster assistance is intended to help Katrina evacuees with immediate food, shelter, and clothing needs. To be eligible for FEMA assistance based on housing needs, the damaged home in the disaster area must be where the applicant usually lives and where the applicant was residing at the time of the disaster.

According to allegations in the indictment, on Sept. 5, Spears filed an online application with FEMA for Hurricane Katrina disaster assistance in which he falsely claimed that his primary residence was an address on Port Street in New Orleans, and further claimed that Hurricane Katrina caused him to have essential needs for food, shelter and clothing. On Sept. 8, as directed in the online application, FEMA disbursed $2,000 to a New Orleans credit union. According to the indictment, Spears has been working full-time in Houston since August 2004, and had been residing in Houston since October 2004.

Both the false claim count and the false statement count carry a punishment of up to 5 years' imprisonment, without parole, and a fine of up to $250,000.

The United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas is a member of the Department of Justice's Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force, which includes federal, state and local law enforcement agencies cooperating to combat all types of Katrina-related fraud.

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