WASHINGTON – Authorities announced Tuesday the arrest of three people they say scammed the government out of money set aside for victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Tselane Gibbs and Jena Sowinski of Long Island, N.Y., and North Carolina resident Joseph McClam, were handcuffed and arrested on the first anniversary of the storm that ripped up parts of the East Coast, leaving thousands homeless and costing the states affected more than $65 billion in damage.
While many residents came together in the days and months following the Oct. 29 storm that claimed 147 lives, others like McClam, Gibbs and Sowinski allegedly plotted to bilk the system, authorities say.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is authorized to provide financial assistance to individuals and households for certain qualifying expenses that result from a “major disaster."
FEMA funds are available to people who are “displaced from their pre-disaster primary residences or whose pre-disaster residences are rendered uninhabitable.”
FEMA has awarded $1.4 billion in disaster benefits to those hit by Sandy, but not all of the claims proved to be genuine.
Authorities say Gibbs, 31, reportedly filed a disaster claim with FEMA she knew was false.
According to the criminal complaint, on Nov. 13, Gibbs told the federal agency that she would stay in her home in Valley Stream, N.Y., while repairs were being made. One day later, she changed her tune, telling FEMA agents there was too much damage and that she was being forced to relocate from her Sandy-sacked home to a Brooklyn rental.
On Nov. 16, Gibbs received a $3,166 check from FEMA to help with temporary housing costs.
Gibbs then allegedly manufactured documents created to look like rental agreements.
Providing the documents allowed Gibbs to continue receiving assistance from FEMA. In all, she raked in nearly $19,000 in federal funds.
Homeland Security investigator Michael Mischler checked out her story and determined she was making it up, according to federal court documents.
Federal investigators said Sandy didn’t cause enough damage to force her out and that Gibbs had been living at her residence while collecting payment from the government.
In Merrick, N.Y., 37-year-old Sowinski told FEMA officials that the hurricane had gutted her home.
On Nov. 6, she filed for disaster assistance and in the 11 months that followed, got $32,000 from FEMA .
When investigators looked into Sowinski’s story, they realized not only was she a rental tenant but that there was minimal damage done to the property she claimed was hers and destroyed by Sandy, according to federal records unsealed Tuesday.
Authorities also rounded up 52-year-old McClam after he told FEMA that his house in Sheepshead Bay, N.J., was hit by the hurricane and collected a $32,000 relief check.
According to the criminal complaint filed against him, investigators discovered McClam was living in Fuwuay Varina, N.C., when Sandy hit and that his rental property in New York – the one he claimed he was living in - hadn’t been inhabited since a 2010 fire.
Homeland Security Special Agent Thomas Adams said in an affidavit that a check of electric and gas companies showed that McClam and his wife had lived in North Carolina while claiming to need federal help following Sandy.