FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Nine Florida women were arrested Friday on charges they bilked the Federal Emergency Management Agency by filing false damage claims after Hurricane Frances last year.

The women – all from Broward County – pocketed a total of $73,329, according to court records. One received $4,072 just for clothing she claimed was ruined. Another attempted to claim the storm ruined three television sets.

“What makes these cases egregious is that this is money that FEMA could use to help real victims who suffered loss not just with Hurricane Frances, but with Katrina and Rita,” said Alicia Valle, spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Friday’s arrests marked the first time anyone in Broward County has been charged with defrauding FEMA in Frances’ wake. Broward County residents collected a total of $14.1 million from FEMA for hurricane damage, even though the storm’s eye made landfall more than 80 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.

A total of 16 Miami-Dade County residents have been arrested the past year on similar charges related to Frances. Fourteen of them have pleaded guilty to cashing in on the disaster, one is awaiting trial and one was acquitted. Of the 11 defendants who have been sentenced, one got a three-month jail term and the rest were put on probation.

The arrests followed South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that FEMA paid out more than $31 million to Miami-Dade residents even though the Labor Day storm only brushed the county. The payouts prompted a U.S. Senate committee investigation.

Each of the nine women arrested Friday could face up to five years in prison if convicted of filing a false claim.

The women charged are: Maryse Dubuisson, 37, of Hollywood; Siandra Lekita Elick, 30, of Fort Lauderdale; Jiquana Heath, 31, of Fort Lauderdale; Valerie Rodney, 20, of Lauderhill; Lakrisha Rumore Ayden, 30, of Lauderhill; Felicia Benita Johnson, 37, of Fort Lauderdale; Tamela Humes, 36, of Sunrise; Chenita Arnella Wiggins, 25, of Fort Lauderdale; and Themecia Maria Couch, 26, of Hollywood.

Humes collected the most – $11,109 – after claiming the hurricane damaged her bedroom, living room and kitchen, leaving her needing a new refrigerator, new television, new range, new dryer and $1,629 in clothing, FEMA records show.

Dubuisson put in claims to replace three televisions she said were damaged, records show.

Dubuisson, Heath and Elick made their first court appearances Friday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Edwin G. Torres. Each had their bond set at $100,000. The other six appeared before a federal magistrate judge in Miami, but Valle said she didn’t know what bonds they received.


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