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7 charged in scamming $80,000 in Katrina aid
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle and New Orleans are more than 2,700 miles apart.
Federal prosecutors say that didn't stop seven current and former Western Washington residents from collecting more than $80,000 in Hurricane Katrina aid by claiming they lived in the path of the deadly August 2005 storm. A federal grand jury indicted seven people Wednesday on a variety of charges, from theft of government property to making false statements and mail fraud.
"What is consistent with all the cases is [the defendants] claimed they were living in the Gulf states when the hurricane hit, when in fact they were living in the Western District of Washington," said Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Western Washington.
These are the first Katrina-related fraud charges filed in the region, Langlie added.
Four of the defendants made their initial appearances before U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle.
George Cuiellette, 60, of Bellevue, pleaded not guilty to two charges of mail fraud and one charge of making false statements to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Cuiellette falsely claimed his primary residence was in New Orleans, according to the government, and improperly received four payments totaling $17,462 for building repairs and for rental housing.
For more information on hurricane-related fraud, or to report suspected fraud, go to the following Web sites:
Department of Justice: www.usdoj.gov/katrina/Katrina_Fraud/
Cuiellette's girlfriend said Thursday he had been traveling to New Orleans regularly to help his brother and sister after the storm. She disputes the charges and said they haven't seen a cent of extra money. In fact, she said, they went into debt for all of the traveling.
"You think we'd be sitting here waiting for them to come get us if we had committed FEMA fraud? We're not the criminal type," she said.
The woman, who didn't give her name, said police banged on their front door at 7:10 a.m. Wednesday and arrested Cuiellette. Also making initial appearances Thursday were Gregory Wilkes, 50, of Auburn; Joy Promise, 36, of Everett; and Diane Clay, 53, of Everett.
Promise pleaded not guilty to one count of making a false statement to FEMA in connection with receipt of $2,000 of assistance.
Wilkes is charged with four counts of theft of government property in connection with $8,866 of aid. Clay is charged with one count of theft of government property in connection with $2,000 of aid. Two of the individuals indicted this week are now living out of state. Rosemarie Calvin, who allegedly received $23,206 of improper aid, now lives in Henderson, Nev. Petrice Trent, who allegedly received $17,906 of improper aid, lives in Harvey, La.
The seventh person indicted, Valerie Montgomery, 38, of Lakewood, Pierce County, is charged with making a false statement in connection with $10,512 of Katrina aid.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in September 2005 launched a national effort to prosecute people who fraudulently received Hurricane Katrina assistance.
In the first full year of the program, 30 U.S. attorneys charged more than 400 people with hurricane-fraud related crimes, according to the Department of Justice.
To date, roughly 1,400 claims for Katrina aid have been filed in Washington state, Langlie said.
A local Katrina Fraud Task Force, led by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, is reviewing all the applications to determine whether the filers actually lived in a region affected by Katrina at the time of the storm.
Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.
David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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