Man Charged with Disaster Fraud Related to Tuscaloosa Tornado
|U.S. Attorney’s Office October 21, 2011|
BIRMINGHAM—The September indictment of a west Alabama man for fraudulently claiming disaster benefits following the April 27 tornadoes in Alabama was unsealed this week following his arrest in Fayette County, announced U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance and FBI Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Maley.
A federal grand jury indicted ROBERT LEE SPIRES, 47, for wire fraud in connection with a scheme to defraud the Federal Emergency Management Agency of disaster-related benefits. U.S. Magistrate Judge T. Michael Putnam ordered Spires detained on the charges today.
According to the indictment, Spires received $1,114 for rental assistance and $471 for personal property assistance from FEMA after falsely claiming on June 21 that he was renting a house on Short 25th Avenue East in Tuscaloosa when it was severely damaged by a tornado. He was not eligible for the assistance because he did not live at that address and did not own any personal property there, the indictment states.
Spires made further attempts to defraud FEMA, seeking disaster benefits for non-existent vision-related expenses and for a car and home appliances he did not own, according to the indictment.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and many other federal law enforcement agencies are watching closely for anyone wrongfully seeking or obtaining disaster benefits,” Vance said. “So many people in North Alabama were seriously harmed by the April 27 tornadoes and disaster benefits are intended to help those survivors recover from the devastating storms. Anyone who commits a crime in order to steal benefits from storm survivors should expect to be prosecuted,” she said.
According to the indictment, the car Spires attempted to obtain benefits on belonged to an associate of his and was not damaged in the storm. The indictment also charges that Spires faxed documents from the Fayette County Memorial Library to a FEMA facility in West Virginia in an attempt to claim benefits for vision expenses and the cost of home appliances. He faxed correspondence to FEMA on July 21 seeking reimbursement for about $276 in vision-related expenses and, on July 27, he faxed correspondence seeking disaster benefits for $2,354 worth of home appliances he claimed were associated with tornado damage at the Short 25th Avenue East residence in Tuscaloosa, the indictment states.
The fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The public can report fraud, waste, abuse, or allegations of mismanagement involving disaster relief operations through the National Disaster Fraud Hotline, toll free, at 1-866-720-5721, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The telephone line is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The FBI investigated the case. The Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, with assistance from the City of Fayette Police Department, arrested Spires. The Tuscaloosa Police Department also participated in the search for Spires. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the case.
Members of the public are reminded that an indictment contains only charges. A defendant is presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.