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August 19, 2009

SIX CHARGED FOR OBTAINING FEDERAL FUNDS FOR HUNDREDS OF CATTLE ALLEGEDLY SWEPT INTO GULF OF MEXICO DURING HURRICANE RITA

Brings to 100 charged in SDTX for fraud related to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike

(HOUSTON) – Six gulf coast area residents have been charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) and filing false claims relating to loss of cattle as a result of Hurricane Rita, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced today.

“This office has vigorously prosecuted, with the assistance of our law enforcement partners, those who have filed false claims related to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike,” Johnson said. “We will continue to have zero tolerance for anyone who fraudulently capitalizes on natural disasters for financial gain.”

Charged in the four-count indictment recently returned under seal and unsealed this morning are Mark Wittliff, 52, of Houston; Richard Roberson, 61, of Port Arthur; and Jackie Hanna, 59, Donald Loiacano, 57, his wife Pamela Loiacano, 54, and his brother Anthony Loiacano Jr., 56, all of Beaumont. All six defendants were arrested this morning at their respective residences. Wittliff appeared in federal court in Houston this morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy while the other five defendants will be making their initial appearances in federal court in Beaumont this afternoon. Witliff was ordered released on bond. All six defendants are expected to appear in federal court in Houston next week for arraignment on the charges.

The charges stem from claims filed under the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) of USDA, FSA, in Galveston and Jefferson counties. The LIP was set up by the FSA to reimburse ranchers for livestock losses during a natural disaster and limits compensation to $80,000 per producer.

The Loiacanos, Loiacano Jr., Hanna and Wittliff were all members or associated with the High Island Cattle Association - a nonprofit business focused on raising and maintaining livestock. High Island is near the Gulf of Mexico on a segment of land sitting between the Gulf and the Intercostal Waterway. High Island straddles Galveston and Chambers counties and is located near Jefferson county. Donald Loiacano, Loiacano Jr., Jackie Hanna (Donald’s Loiacano’s sister) and Wittliff raised and maintained livestock in High Island, Texas, located in Galveston County. Richard Roberson raised and maintained livestock in Jefferson County in an inland pasture.

The Indictment alleges that after the defendants learned of the LIP, the defendants conspired to and misrepresented to the FSA that hundreds of cattle were swept away into the Gulf of Mexico following Hurricane Rita. The co-conspirators used various statements from one another, according to the indictment, to support their claims of more than 500 non-existent cattle that had supposedly drowned in the wake of Hurricane Rita. Even through their claims were initially denied, according to the indictment, the defendants supplied additional false documentation to the FSA which ultimately resulted in the defendants receiving a total of more than $390,000 in connection with these false claims.

The maximum penalty upon conviction any of the four counts alleged - conspiracy and three counts of allegedly violating the false claims statute - is up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

This case was investigated by USDA - Office of Inspector General with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security - Office of Inspector General. The United States Marshals Service and the Texas Department of Public Safety assisted investigating officers with the arrests this morning.  Assistant United States Attorneys Ryan D. McConnell and Gregg Costa are prosecuting the case.

Anyone suspecting criminal activity involving  fraud or abuse of the LIP or any other USDA program may report such instances anonymously via electronic mail at usda_hotline@oig.usda.gov or by calling the USDA Hotline at (800) 424-9121 or (202) 690-1622 or (202) 690-1202 (TDD) or writing to:

United Stated Department of Agriculture
Office of Inspector General
P. O. Box 23399
Washington, D. C. 20026-3399.
 

The United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas is also a member of the Department of Justice's Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force, created to deter, detect and prosecute unscrupulous individuals who try to take advantage of the Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita disasters. The Task Force is comprised of federal, state and local law enforcement investigating agencies and the United States Attorney’s Offices in the Gulf Coast region and nationwide. 

Anyone suspecting criminal activity involving disaster assistance programs can make an anonymous report by calling the toll-free Hurricane Relief Fraud Hotline, 1-866-720-5721 or contacting the Disaster Fraud Fax at 1-225-334-4707 or the Disaster Fraud e-mail at disaster@leo.gov, 24 hours a day, seven days a week until further notice. Information can also be e-mailed to the inspector general at dhsoighotline@dhs.gov or sent by surface mail, with as many details as possible, to:

National Center for Disaster Fraud
Baton Rouge, LA 70821-4909

or

Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC. 20528
Attn: Office of Inspector General, Hotline

 

 

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