Contractors begin removal of flood debris from a Houston neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey on Sept. 8, 2017. (FEMA photo)

More Fraud Risk Management Needed on FEMA Public Assistance Emergency Work Grants, Says GAO

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided almost $10 billion through its Public Assistance grant program to states and territories for debris removal and other emergency work projects following the hurricanes and wildfires in 2017.

FEMA knew about some of the fraud risks to the program, such as overstated claims for debris removal and kickbacks. But there are several leading practices for fraud risk assessments that could help FEMA identify even more risks and mitigate them.

The Government Accountability Office made 5 recommendations, including that FEMA assess fraud risks to this program and provide antifraud training to grant recipients and program staff.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has identified some risks to Public Assistance (PA) emergency work grants—funds provided to applicants such as states and territories—for debris removal and other emergency measures. FEMA also has ongoing or planned efforts that could inform fraud risk assessments. However, the agency has not comprehensively assessed fraud risks to these grants as called for by leading practices in GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework. Fraud risks include those from debris removal schemes—such as misrepresenting the amount, source, or type of items removed—or associated with procurement and contracting, such as bribery, collusion, and false invoicing. According to officials, FEMA manages fraud risks to PA emergency work grants through its existing grants-management and program-integrity efforts. However, absent regular fraud risk assessments, including identifying inherent fraud risks and examining the suitability of existing controls, FEMA lacks reasonable assurance that these efforts effectively address the most significant fraud risks facing PA emergency work grants.

FEMA provides resources to help PA applicants meet their responsibilities for managing risks, but opportunities exist for the agency to improve communication. Specifically, GAO found that FEMA communicated some information that could help applicants manage fraud risks, but key resources did not provide information on known areas of fraud risk. According to GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework, a leading practice is to provide fraud-awareness training for external stakeholders—such as PA applicants—with responsibility for implementing aspects of the program. Further, a leading practice for implementing effective fraud-awareness initiatives is to convey information about risks and how to identify fraud schemes. According to FEMA officials, the agency generally does not use the term “fraud” because FEMA’s focus is on ensuring compliance and eligibility. However, the deceptive nature of fraud makes it harder to detect than nonfraudulent errors, such as compliance and eligibility issues, and potentially requires control activities designed to prevent and detect criminal intent. Updating key resources for applicants to ensure these resources consistently communicate information on the highest fraud risks to emergency work grants would help ensure applicants are better able to identify and address potential fraud earlier in the process.

GAO makes five recommendations, including that FEMA plan and conduct fraud risk assessments of PA emergency work grants and that it consistently communicate information to PA applicants on the highest fraud risks. The Department of Homeland Security stated that it concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

Read more at GAO

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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