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Hurricane Michael, trust betrayed: Two city officials, others indicted in $5 million fraud

David Pendered
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By David Pendered

A 35-count federal indictment for allegedly stealing money from the Hurricane Michael recovery effort was released last week in Panama City, Fl. The sum of $5 million was cited in the case against five defendants – including the former city manager and the community services director of Lynn Haven, a town clobbered by the storm.

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More than 13 months after Hurricane Michael blew through Lynn Haven, Fl., roof repairs have only recently begun at the locally owned and operated shop, Badcock Home Furniture & More, located a few blocks from the town’s city hall. Credit: David Pendered

The former city manager used the emergency powers vested in his office after the storm to secure bogus clean-up services and other matters related to Hurricane Michael, according to a statement released with the indictment.

The indictment alleges the city manager’s inside accomplice was the city’s community services director, who signed off on bogus invoices and committed other unlawful acts. Three area business operators were their partners, according to the statement.

The items taken ranged from significant to less than significant:

  • Paying emergency workers to wrap presents for a Halloween party – to the tune of $35 an hour for workers and $90 an hour for a supervisor;
  • A false invoice of $332,387.76 for debris collection and removal that wasn’t done;
  • A false invoice of $479,020.68 for debris collection and removal that wasn’t done;
  • A payment of $300,000 to a contractor for the purchase of the city manager’s farm and an automobile;
  • A false statement of “paid in full” for a $9,600 insurance claim for work that wasn’t done.

The locally famous Bolinger-Cooley House, in Lynn Haven, had been restored for ‘continued life as a landmark home.’ Hurricane Michael evidently blew off siding, which is being repaired. Credit: David Pendered

A sense of betrayal permeates statements from three law enforcement authorities issued after the indictments were unveiled on Nov. 20:

  • Lawrence Keefe, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, called the alleged crimes: “[A]n egregious abuse of power and position by people in public service who betrayed their sacred duties – and those who sought to illegally scheme and conspire with them – to breach the public’s trust.”
  • Rachel L. Rojas, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville division: “Abusing one’s position for personal gain – especially in a time of crisis – is a blatant disregard to the oath that every government official takes. … Federal assistance programs are established to help individuals, families, and businesses that have suffered tremendous loss, and abusing these programs is egregious.”
  • Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford: “The Bay County Sheriff’s Office will stand firm against corruption…. As Sheriff of Bay County, I remain unwavering in my commitment to dedicate the resources needed to continue this fight against corruption.”
Lynn Haven, Bolinger-Cooley House, sign

Built in 1912, the Bolinger-Cooley House in Lynn Haven was a noted residence that had been restored before Hurricane Michael and now is undergoing addition restoration work. Credit: David Pendered

The charges in the indictment include conspiring to commit wire fraud; substantive counts of wire fraud; conspiracy to commit money laundering; substantive counts of thefts concerning programs receiving federal funds; honest services fraud; filing false claims to the Federal Emergency Management Agency; mail fraud concerning the false claim filed with an insurance company.

A federal grand jury returned the indictment on Nov. 6. Keefe released the indictment and a statement on Nov. 20.

Lynn Haven didn’t make many headlines during or after the Category 5 storm that came ashore Oct. 10, 2018 at Mexico Beach, Fl. and left a path of snapped trees, ruined crops and devastated structures all the way to Augusta.

But Lynn Haven suffered its share of damage. More than a few area residents fled to Lynn Haven, thinking it was far enough inland to be a safe haven. It wasn’t. Blue tarps spread across leaking roofs are still common. Drainage ditches are still being cleared of fallen pine trees that stem the flow of rain water and turn some low-lying areas into breeding grounds for insects and nuisance critters.

 

Lynn Haven, debris

Debris collected after Hurricane Michael awaits haul-off in Lynn Haven, in a neighborhood where most of the storm-damaged homes have been repaired. Credit: David Pendered

 

David Pendered
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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