By Megan O'Matz and Sally Kestin By Megan O'Matz and Sally Kestin Staff
Writers Posted April 24 2005
Government inspectors entrusted to enter disaster victims'
homes and verify damage claims include criminals with records for
embezzlement, drug dealing and robbery, a South Florida
Sun-Sentinel investigation has found.
have pointed to the inspectors as their primary defense against
accusations of widespread fraud for their payout of more than $31
million in Hurricane Frances disaster aid in Miami-Dade -- a county
spared hurricane-force winds.
a January news conference, the Federal Emergency Management Agency
insisted there was damage in Miami-Dade County.
"We know this
for several reasons," said Dan Craig, FEMA's director of recovery
programs. "Foremost among them is that FEMA's contract inspectors
personally inspect and verify the claims. Ö Our contract inspectors
are our first line of accountability."
That first line of
accountability, the newspaper found, includes:
DeWan, 46, of Texas. Known by the nickname "Mad Dog," he has a rap
sheet that includes marijuana possession, three drunken-driving
convictions and four citations for public intoxication. DeWan
referred questions about his background to his employer.
J. Neal, 60, of North Carolina, who served more than six years in
prison in three states for criminal sexual conduct, attempted
embezzlement of public money, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and
cocaine possession. After last year's hurricanes, he trained new
inspectors in Florida. Neal told the newspaper he had an impeccable
Niels S. May, 39, of Tampa, who pleaded guilty
to possession of marijuana, cocaine and drug paraphernalia in 1996.
During a search of his home, police found two rifles, a shotgun and
a .357 Magnum, court records show. "I'm not going to discuss my
criminal history, and it's not much of one, to anybody," May told
Darin P. Brebes, 36, a longtime
inspector. Twice convicted of drunken driving in California, Brebes
is wanted in Florida for failing to appear on a 1999 DUI in Broward
County. Brebes said he no longer drinks, adding that a DUI is
nothing more than "a traffic violation."
The four are among
thousands of independent contractors FEMA has relied on to evaluate
damage in disaster areas and help determine whether applicants
receive government aid.
It is not known how many in the whole
work force might have criminal records because FEMA will not release
the names of any of its inspectors or their supervisors, citing an
"unwarranted invasion of their personal privacy." The
Sun-Sentinel has filed a federal suit against FEMA and its
umbrella agency, the Department of Homeland Security, seeking the
identities of inspectors and aid recipients.
found 30 inspectors or managers with criminal records out of 133 it
was able to identify through confidential sources, news clips, FEMA
applicants and the Internet. A case against another inspector,
charged in Mississippi with the attempted rape of a Hurricane Ivan
victim, is still pending. The count includes those with at least one
misdemeanor offense, such as drunken driving, but excludes traffic
citations or infractions.
Of the inspectors and supervisors
identified as having records, 17 had criminal histories at the time
they were hired. At least four lost their jobs for arrests after
they were hired, including one scheduled for sentencing May 6 in
California for child molestation, and two convicted of federal
bribery charges for promising higher FEMA payments in exchange for
Seven inspectors have records for marijuana or cocaine
possession, including one convicted in 2002 after being hired as an
inspector in what the local sheriff described as one of the largest
drug busts ever in his Louisiana county.
Another inspector is
a house burglar who served three stints in prison in
How it works
Almost all the
inspectors worked for a subsidiary of Parsons Brinckerhoff of
Virginia, which has a $150 million, five-year contract with FEMA to
recruit, hire and dispatch inspectors to national disasters. Another
Virginia company, PaRR Inspections, also has a FEMA contract under
FEMA used inspectors' assessments of damage to
homes and belongings last year to disburse more than $1 billion in
aid to Floridians after the hurricanes. Parsons Brinckerhoff
dispatched 2,000 inspectors after the storms, its "largest effort"
ever, a company bulletin says.
Neither FEMA nor its
inspection companies would say how many inspectors have criminal
The government requires the companies to "conduct a
complete background check" of inspectors that includes local, state
and national criminal searches, FEMA said in a statement to the
newspaper. "Records are searched for both felony and misdemeanor
Gregory L. Reynolds, 48, deputy project manager for
Parsons Brinckerhoff, said the company has complied with the
requirement. "Our background check is very thorough," he
Yet Reynolds said he was unaware of the criminal
records uncovered by the newspaper.
Reynolds himself was
convicted of DUI in Virginia in December. The court restricted his
driver's license. "I can drive to work and back," he
FEMA and Parsons Brinckerhoff would not say what crimes
-- either before or after hiring -- preclude an applicant from
serving as an inspector or supervisor.
released a statement saying it uses a company to do FEMA-approved
background screening and criminal checks on every inspector "to the
extent we are able to obtain such information." Parsons Brinckerhoff
"carefully considers the background information we receive in
deciding whether an individual inspector is suitable for
A lawyer for PaRR referred questions to
FEMA declined to comment on the criminal records the
newspaper found or its confidence in inspectors. The agency would
not answer questions about whether it was aware of the records or if
not, what action, if any, would be taken.
Brinckerhoff fired Brebes, the inspector with the warrant for the
Broward County DUI, after being contacted by the Sun-Sentinel
last week, he said.
"I should have taken care of it a
long time ago," Brebes told the newspaper. "I'm not a criminal. I'm
not a bad person. I just had unfortunate drinking
Inspectors are paid about $45 per inspection and
can make upward of $100,000 a year. Several told the newspaper that
the job is demanding. Called to disasters nationwide, inspectors
must leave their families for weeks at a time and work long hours.
Some have been threatened and robbed on the job.
"We're not all bad because we have criminal
histories," said inspector Keith Zaengle, 40, of Hernando County.
"We're just the only ones they can get who will do
During a 1992 search of Zaengle's home, Tampa police
found 4 pounds of marijuana, four scales, two shotguns, a rifle and
$1,204 tucked in a cup, police records say. Zaengle told police he
was "just dealing small amounts to friends and using the rest
himself," the records say.
He received probation after
pleading no contest to possession of marijuana and drug
paraphernalia in an "adjudication withheld" agreement that allowed
him to avoid convictions. He pled guilty to another marijuana
possession charge in 1999, records show. Zaengle said he has been an
inspector for both PaRR and Parsons Brinckerhoff.
"I live a
good life," he told the newspaper. "In my five or six years of doing
this, I've done a lot of applicants a lot of good. I'm very proud of
what I've done."
Inspector Jerry Koontz, a wedding
photographer from Oroville, Calif., told the Sun-Sentinel
that he disclosed his criminal record on his application to
become a FEMA inspector. Koontz, now 60, was convicted of possession
of cocaine for sale in 1984 and served six months in a work-furlough
program in California. Parsons Brinckerhoff hired him and dispatched
him last year to Florida, where he handled FEMA claims after
The company fired him, he said, after an aid
applicant in Pensacola complained that he "became obsessed with her
and began to follow her around," according to police
Parsons Brinckerhoff prohibits inspectors from
socializing with applicants. Koontz told the newspaper he called the
woman repeatedly, brought her gifts and took her family to
"I was wrong," he said. "All I was doing was trying
to help the poor girl."
Parsons Brinckerhoff also fired inspector
Terry Rucks, 53, of El Granada, Calif., last year, a day before an
Escambia County Sheriff's deputy found him in a motor home with a
stun gun, a pit bull and items damaged by Hurricane Ivan. No charges
were filed against him.
Rucks told the Sun-Sentinel he
and a hitchhiker he befriended had taken "a nice big toolbox with
power tools," a life jacket, boat fenders and "gallons and gallons
"Nothing was stolen," he said. "Before we took
anything, we said: `Are you guys throwing this away?'"
questioning by the deputy, Rucks acknowledged that "he had an
extensive criminal background," the sheriff's report
Rucks told the Sun-Sentinel that he was
charged with manslaughter in a boating accident (the charge was
later dropped), jailed twice for violating a restraining order filed
by a former wife, and convicted of resisting
"Twenty-five years ago when I was a youngster, some
cops gave me a hard time," he said. "I whipped up on them. I was
charged with resisting arrest, which I did, and I'm proud of
After being fired by Parsons Brinckerhoff, Rucks said,
PaRR contracted with him to do hurricane inspections in central and
Long-time inspector Bill Neal said he was
fired last year by Parsons Brinckerhoff after the company learned of
his criminal record. Neal appealed, and the company rehired him as a
trainer, a job that kept him out of applicants' homes, he told the
Neal's criminal history dates to 1979, when, as
the elected treasurer of Highland Park, Mich., he was arrested for
stealing city funds, court records show. He served nine months in
From 1987 to 1992, home for Neal was a state prison
in Michigan, records show.
He pleaded guilty to criminal
sexual conduct after a colleague at the National Monetary Corp. in
Troy, Mich., told police he attacked her following an office party,
court records state.
While in jail for that crime, federal
prosecutors charged Neal with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Working as a salesman in 1983, he helped clients interested in
drilling for oil and gas in a program run by the federal Bureau of
Land Management, court records state.
"The heart of the crime
centers on a series of false representations made by Neal during his
sales pitch over the telephone," the pre-sentencing memo says. He
served two months in the summer of 1992 in a federal prison in
A little more than a year later, Neal was working for
the federal government. He performed damage inspections for FEMA in
southern California after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, he
told the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News in 1999.
Neal told the paper, he had done more than 6,000 FEMA
Six months after that interview, he was back in
prison in California for DUI and cocaine possession.
released from prison Feb. 27, 2001, and returned to work as a FEMA
inspector. After successfully completing the terms of probation, the
drug charge was dismissed.
"If you go back to the
embezzlement, I did do that," he told the newspaper. But Neal said
he was the victim of "prosecutorial misconduct" in the criminal
sexual conduct case.
Most of the charges against him occurred
in the 1980s in "a bad part of my life," Neal said. "My work record
has been impeccable over the last 20 years."
Another FEMA inspector, Mark S.
Verheyden, now 45, was charged in 1994 with soliciting a $500
kickback from a federal disaster aid applicant near Houston. He
pleaded guilty to bribery and served 26 months in federal prison in
By then he already had a lengthy criminal record in
Florida. During a 1983 arrest, an Orange County sheriff's deputy had
to tie Verheyden's feet with rope after he tried to kick out the
windows of a patrol car, a police report says.
He received 10
years' probation in 1986 for kidnapping and aggravated assault with
a deadly weapon after he forced a former girlfriend into his car,
put a construction-type nail gun to her ribs, and ordered her to
drive to an "unknown dirt road in an orange grove," court records
"After about three hours of begging to be released,"
records say, "she decided to lie to Verheyden and tell him that she
loved him again and would move in with him again."
who could not be located for comment, also had convictions for
battery, driving with a suspended license, resisting arrest without
violence, leaving the scene of an accident, contempt of court and
Cynthia Leath of Crosby, Texas, had no
reason to distrust Verheyden when FEMA sent him to her home in 1994
after she filed a flood damage claim. Verheyden worked for a private
company that no longer has a contract with FEMA. Leath said she was
unaware that he was not directly employed by the agency.
had a sign on his truck that said FEMA," she recalled. "He had a
badge on his shirt, with his picture and big bold FEMA
Once in her home, Verheyden asked Leath for sex and
$500 in return for inflating her claim, she said. Leath reported
Verheyden and helped authorities catch him on tape seeking a
Through the court case, Leath learned of Verheyden's
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "He's a
representative of the government here to help me."
Researchers Barbara Hijek and William Lucey contributed to this
Megan O'Matz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 954-356-4518. Sally Kestin can be reached at
email@example.com or 954-356-4510.
Known by the nickname "Mad Dog," he has a rap sheet that includes
marijuana possession, three drunken-driving convictions and four
citations for public intoxication.
Comment: DeWan referred
questions about his background to his employer.
Subscribe today to the
Sun-Sentinel and find out how to get one week
here or call 1-877-READ-SUN.