13 INVESTIGATES: Tornado Recovery Fraud - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Tornado Recovery Fraud

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BIRMINGHAM, AL -

Over the last 24 months, Alabama has come a long way.

Thousands of residents, whose lives were blown away by the April 27, 2011 twisters, are back on their feet.

Generous neighbors deserve much of the credit, but tax-funded FEMA relief also came in handy.

Since the storms, 16,408 families received $77.3 million from FEMA.

Unfortunately, some of that money ended up in the wrong hands. 

Take Libra Green for example.

She told FEMA the tornado killed her father, infant daughter and damaged her home on Cherry Avenue in Birmingham.

She initially denied the allegations but eventually pleaded guilty to them in court.

She is now serving a two year prison sentence for fraudulently applying for FEMA relief.

However, Green was not alone.

U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance's office has prosecuted more than a dozen such cases in federal court.

A total of 17 people have been charged with tornado-related fraud.

Fifteen of those have been either convicted or pleaded guilty.

Combined, they received more than $152,903 in relief intended for true tornado survivors.

"In this situation we decided we were so concerned with making sure that the money that was there to help victims went to victims, we took the zero tolerance policy," Vance stressed.

Vance's office claims Pamela Desmond received nearly $12,840 from FEMA.

Court documents show she claimed the storms damaged the shed she lived in behind this home on Hickory Avenue Southwest in Birmingham.

The owner of the home told us that neither the home nor the shed suffered storm damage.

Desmond collected $5,174 dollars for dental work and cashed a $1,800 FEMA check to purchase a Mercedes S500.

Her case is still pending and she's pleaded not guilty.

Finally there is the case of Frances Lowery and son.

She pleaded guilty to asking for $30,200 in FEMA relief for damage to a Shoal Creek Valley home when she was living nearly ten miles away with her husband in this lakeside development in Ashville.

Attorney Brett Bloomston represented Lowery.

He argues Lowery did own the damaged the property.

"After living in the home for 27 years, still owning it still having personal property in it, still maintaining live animals on the property, she believed that to be her primary residence.  That was her home and unfortunately, the law sees it differently," Bloomston argued.

FEMA requires the property on which you file a claim must be, "where you usually live and where you were living at the time of the disaster."

Frances Lowery was living and receiving most of her mail at the Ashville address.

"The court certainly sees the case as a fraud because it was not her primary residence.  Mrs. Lowery filed for these benefits or filed a claim for these benefits because she thought she was entitled to them.  She lost everything she had April 27th, 2011.  All her possessions were in that home.  She just wasn't living there to fulfill the threshold of it being her primary residence," Bloomston added.

We mentioned Lowery's son.

It turns out Daniel Lowery also pleaded guilty to fraudulently taking $30,200 in FEMA cash.

He filed a claim on a property next to his mother's damage home but admitted he moved from there two months before April 27th, 2011.

We could go on.

In fact, across the state, there were more than 150 tornado-related arrests following that terrible spring day two years ago.

Since then, Alabama has seen a handful of other devastating twisters.

Like the one in Clay and another in Chilton County.

However, Joyce Vance says they have no pending cases following those disasters.

"Word has gotten out that we won't tolerate that sort of fraud in this community.  And as a result we are not seeing the amount of it that one might expect with repeated sort of tornado episodes of this intensity," Vance concluded.

So far a dozen of those federal tornado fraud culprits have been sentenced.

Their punishments range from probation to two years behind bars.

They must also pay back the money FEMA gave them.

Frances Lowery received five years probation and ordered to repay the money.

Her son Daniel will be sentenced in August.

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