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FEMA worker sentenced for fraud

The attorney for a disaster specialist convicted of defrauding the Federal Emergency Management Agency out of thousands of dollars during relief efforts in Vermont and in other states said Monday that his client never realized he was bilking the government by submitting bogus expenses.

Warren Summers pleaded guilty in July to submitting almost $30,000 worth of false expense claims to FEMA during the last four years — including during a four-month stint in Vermont in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.

But while Summers admitted to staying at cheap motels and then billing the government for nights spent at much more expensive lodgings, the Nebraska man’s attorney said Monday that his client believed when he was committing the frauds that he was taking advantage of the system, not committing a crime.

“He saw his actions as in many ways harmless,” Burlington attorney Ernest Allen said during a sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Rutland. “If he paid $50 a night for a room but the government paid $200 a night, he wasn’t taking any more from the government than the government was willing to give.”

And Allen said Summers isn’t the only person or corporation who takes advantage of the government’s willingness to overpay.

“Let’s be blunt. Some who deal with the government consider this to be entrepreneurial opportunity,” Allen said. “The defense industry is a perfect example. That’s how you get $500 ashtrays ... It’s somewhat wasteful but the government is willing to pay this.”

But in arguments over how much Summers should pay in restitution, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Drescher described the ploy as a “sneaky scheme” that involved the creation of multiple fake company websites and the use of online credit card tools to deceive FEMA officials.

While the government didn’t seek any jail time for Summers — who was sentenced to two years of probation and a six-month period of home confinement — Drescher did ask the court to order Summers to pay $37,000 in restitution. That amount includes not only the amount of excess expenses that Summers billed for but about $7,500 that he paid in actual lodging fees.

“Every penny was inappropriately paid because if the government had perfect knowledge, he would have been eligible for none of it,” Drescher said. “I think whether he slept on the sidewalk for nothing or at the Equinox for a dollar less than his per diem, the crime here is the false reporting.”

But Allen said that if Judge Christina Reiss decided that claiming restitution for the $7,500 that Summers paid out of pocket was going too far.

“If you take Mr. Drescher’s argument to its full extent we’re lucky they’re not asking for his salary back,” Allen said. “The government is asking for a figure that, in fact, would result in the government turning a profit.”

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