State Attorney Generals Rally to Hurricane Duty
By Mark Matthews, Staff Writer
There's a new scam festering in the floodwaters of Louisiana. Authorities have received dozens of complaints about swindlers stealing the identities of evacuees in order to filch hurricane relief checks or worse.
Investigations are under way, but the relief-check scam is only the latest challenge for state attorneys general since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita first menaced the southern shores.
In the past few weeks, state attorneys general on the Gulf Coast and beyond have contended with price-gouging, charity scams, online cheats, illegal contractors and the considerable task of rebuilding the criminal justice system in some storm-stricken areas.
The disasters underline the important role state attorneys general play in the aftermath of catastrophes, academic and legal experts said.
In Louisiana, Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr. filed charges against nursing home owners who did not evacuate their wards. His office also filed charges against two men suspected of posing as relief workers to gain personal information and is investigating 17 complaints of relief-check fraud made in the past week, a spokeswoman said.
"We have a lot of irons in the fire," said Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana attorney general. She also noted efforts to reorganize the local justice system, which has been damaged and delayed by the storms.
In Missouri, Attorney General Jay Nixon sued to shut down a number of websites allegedly designed to funnel hurricane funds to suspected racist and anti-Semitic causes. Similarly, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist sued the operator of several websites that allegedly masqueraded as relief organizations.
Nationwide, state attorneys general have been particularly active in trying to stop two types of hurricane-related offenders -- store owners who might be gouging consumers with price hikes, particularly for gasoline, and car dealers who sell vehicles damaged in the hurricane without revealing where they came from.
The attorneys general of Arkansas and Kentucky have issued warnings about flood-damaged cars, telling consumers there may be as many as 500,000 damaged vehicles from the Gulf Coast hitting the market soon.
As for price-gouging, a number of attorneys general have posted warnings about the practice and have urged consumers to report any abuses. In New York, hundreds of miles from the Gulf Coast, the office of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has received thousands of complaints from consumers about price-gouging at gas stations.
Jim Tierney, who served for a decade as Maine's attorney general, said these types of warnings can act as an effective deterrent against disaster-related fraud.
"The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer in the state, or they are perceived to be the top person. That perception is as important as anything else," said Tierney, who is now the director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School.
For instance, Tierney said, if an attorney general issues a warning about price-gouging, it will make gas station owners across the state take notice -- preventing many of them from even considering the idea. "It makes a difference," he said.
Plus, Tierney said attorneys general have the power to prioritize. That ability allows them to accurately adjust state legal resources to handle the crisis at hand.
For example, Tierney said, after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, officials from the state attorney general's office sent teams of lawyers into the field to help establish the rule of law -- whether it involved keeping the courts running or extending the voting time for an election.
Richard Doran, who served as Florida's attorney general for a few months between 2002 and 2003, said his state pioneered the method of sending lawyers as "first-responders." Other state attorneys general since have used this idea as a model for their own disaster preparation.
"When these storms come through, there is a complete disorientation of the population. There is no rule of law," Doran said. "It is incredibly important to put out a statement and act to show there are laws in place."
Oklahoma officials said they follow the same philosophy as a way to prevent fraud.
"Anytime that homes are destroyed, there will be people going around the country looking to take advantage of vulnerable people," said Jane Wheeler, director of the consumer protection unit with Oklahoma's office of the attorney general.
"It's just a difficult time," she said. "They want things to get back to normal as soon as possible, so they'll sign with the first person to come along."
For now in Louisiana, officials said their priorities are getting the criminal justice system in the New Orleans area back up and running after the storms shuttered courts, destroyed records and threw scheduling into disarray. Until then, the state attorney general is hampered in sending swindlers, such as relief-check crooks, to prison.
"We can file charges and arrest them," spokeswoman Wartelle said. "But we can't take them to court anytime soon."