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National Center for Disaster Fraud Keeps an Eye Out

"Two things keep us busy – Mother Nature and human greed," said Jonathan Rusch of the United States Department of Justice.

Those two things have ensured that life is never dull in the National Center for Disaster Fraud, a Federal task force that operates out of Johnston Hall on LSU's Campus. The center recently celebrated a fifth anniversary in August.

"New investigations pop up daily," said United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana Jim Letten, who was named director of the fraud center this spring. "Hopefully, some really interesting cases will come to light soon."

The center was established in September 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales determined that the hurricane's aftermath would create a natural environment for those who would seek to defraud federal, state and local governments as well as private citizens. With New Orleans unavailable, Baton Rouge was considered the next best location, with the LSU administration providing the office space. Since then, the center has snuffed out fraud nation-wide, involving natural disasters ranging from wild fires on the West Coast, to last May's Nashville, Tenn., floods and last January's massive earthquake in Haiti. Most recently, they've dealt with cases related to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Letten, along with the center's deputy director Kathleen Wylie and Rusch, the deputy chief for strategy and policy in the fraud section of the U.S. Department of Justice, said that the center has handled 40,270 total complaints and receives approximately 100 new ones a day.

"It's been a great success story here," said Letten. "And the LSU administration has our gratitude for providing us with some invaluable space in a central location."

"One of the significant advantages of our location is that we have student support for our call center," explained Rusch.

"That is a great utility for us," Letten added. "It's through that hotline that individuals have an avenue to be our eyes and ears."

The center has dealt with public corruption cases, such as the case of St. Tammany Parish Councilman Joseph Impastato, who pled guilty to illegal solicitation and making false statements to the I.R.S. in connection to a federal contract for debris removal following Katrina, and has even cases related to the Federal Recovery Act of 2009.

"Our cases have ranged from the very slick and sophisticated to some that are pretty reckless and brazen," said Letten. "Recently we've had individuals who have claimed to be fishermen affected by the oil spill that weren't even from the Gulf Coast or had never even stepped on a boat. Sometimes they are caught early; sometimes it's after the fact. Some cases have involved people who are already in prison for other crimes."

Fraud cases reported to the center have spanned 47 federal districts nation-wide, according to Letten.

"We are deeply grateful to LSU," said Rusch. "We wouldn't have the results we have without the support the university has provided."

For more information on the National Center for Disaster Fraud, or to report a complaint, call 866-720-5721.