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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Alabama Woman Sentenced to More Than Six Years in Prison for Katrina Fraud

Lawanda T. Williams, also known as Lawanda Johnson, was sentenced to more than six years in prison for defrauding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) of more than $267,000 and for aggravated identity theft following Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Attorney Deborah Rhodes of the Southern District of Alabama announced.

Williams was sentenced to 75 months in prison, and was ordered to pay full restitution to FEMA in the amount of $267,377. In addition, Williams was ordered to forfeit all of the property she purchased with the proceeds of her Katrina fraud, including four automobiles, real estate, televisions and other electronics.

Williams pled guilty in September 2006 to making false claims to the government, wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft in connection with 28 fraudulent claims for disaster assistance she made to FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. Williams admitted that her residence in Jackson, Ala. was not damaged by the hurricane and that she filed 28 fraudulent claims for Katrina assistance, falsely claiming to have lived at various addresses in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. In those applications, Williams admitted using Social Security numbers of other people and providing FEMA with fraudulent and fictitious documents that purported to prove her ownership of property she did not own.

"Ms. Williams used Hurricane Katrina and the relief efforts as an opportunity to make hundreds of thousands of dollars by lying and by stealing other people's identities," says Rhodes. "The Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force is actively working to bring to justice those who took advantage of the recovery efforts to enrich themselves."

Hurricane Katrina was the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. It made landfall along the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, laying waste to New Orleans and the surrounding region. The government response, particularly from FEMA, was widely criticized.

In September 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales created the national Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force, designed to deter, investigate and prosecute disaster-related federal crimes such as charity fraud, identity theft, procurement fraud and insurance fraud. The Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force, chaired by Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, Alice Fisher, includes members from the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, the Postal Inspector's Office and the Executive Office of United States Attorneys, among others.

The case was investigated by the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General, the FBI, and the United States Postal Inspection Service. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Costello.

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