Desima James would seem to be the unluckiest man in America.
In 2005 and 2006 alone, he suffered through three devastating Gulf Coast hurricanes, a tornado in Indiana and flooding in New Hampshire.
Or so he told the Federal Emergency Management Agency, authorities say.
James is charged with cheating the government out of more than $30,000 by filing over 30 fraudulent emergency-relief claims with FEMA — all while living in Atlanta.
He pleaded not guilty to the charges, which could land him in prison for more than 30 years.
Dozens of people have been accused of defrauding the government in the aftermath of storms such as Hurricane Katrina, which pummeled New Orleans in August 2005. And some of the swindlers stole far more money than James is accused of receiving. In one case, two women scammed FEMA out of more than $700,000.
But authorities say few scam artists were as prolific as James, who allegedly used a variety of fake addresses, names and Social Security numbers and received 15 checks in all.
“He has now been caught and will be called to answer for this extensive fraud,” said U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates.
James’ attorney, Anna Blitz, said it is too early to say how she plans to defend him.
Prosecutor Steve McClain would not say how the 30-year-old James was caught or exactly when authorities realized they were being scammed, and he would not give details of the property damage James claimed to have suffered.
But the prosecutor said many of the man’s claims were made though through FEMA’s toll-free hot line, and “he used different information for each claim, so it made it more difficult to notice there were duplicate claims being filed.”
FEMA officials would not comment specifically on James’ case, but prosecutors defended the agency, given the size of the disasters it dealt with.
“You could ask any agency that ends up being defrauded if they did a sufficient job of screening applicants,” said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten of New Orleans, whose office has prosecuted many FEMA fraud cases. “But you have to remember there were FEMA claims made all over the United States, and the effort was to try to get money to deserving applicants as quickly as possible.”
Authorities said James has been in and out of trouble with the law on various fraud and forgery charges and was already behind bars when he was indicted this time.
James really did live in a New Orleans apartment when Katrina struck, and filed a claim, but FEMA denied it because his place sustained very little damage, prosecutors said.
After the storm, though, he came to Atlanta and allegedly filed a new round of Katrina-related claims under phony addresses. Like a modern-day Job, he also reported he was a victim of Hurricane Rita in Beaumont, Texas, and claimed to have suffered through Hurricane Wilma in Florida; strong storms and flooding in New Hampshire; and a tornado and severe storms in Indiana, investigators said.
Associated Press Writer Mary Foster in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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