FOX 8 Defenders:Homeowners fear they're victims of federal fraud

Floodwaters flowed over John Bailey's roof during Hurricane Katrina. Nearly seven years later he wants to retrofit his windows with storm screens to better protect his home in St. Bernard from future storm damage.

"He [the contractor] asked for $4,000. I gave him the check and he just never came back," said John Bailey, who lives in Violet.

Bailey said he signed a contract with Cornelius Washington and hired Southern Storm Products to install the screens in December 2011. Seven months later, he's still waiting for Southern Storm to start the job.

Karen Hill's mom's home has screens, but they're not the ones she paid thousands of dollars for.

"I wrote him [Washington] a check for half of the money, you know, and that was it. That was the last time I seen him, first and last time," said Hill.

She said she paid Washington $2,500 five months ago to place new, stronger window screens around her elderly mother's home also in St. Bernard.

Then there's a homeowner in Plaquemines Parish who, like Bailey, is also out $4,000 for the deposit check she wrote the same man in December 2011.

All three checks to Cornelius Washington and Southern Storm Products together equal $10,500, and it's federal money granted to homeowners through the Louisiana Road Home IMM program for Individual Mitigation Measures. Essentially, that means small-scale home improvements that include storm shutters and windows.

"He answered most of my questions I asked, like how long it would be once we do the down payment... How long it would be before the windows would be done. He said about six weeks," said Hill.

That was in February. Halfway through July, the work still hasn't started.

"Hurricane season is back. It's been seven months. I don't hear from this guy. He don't return your calls," said Bailey. "I tried to call this number he gave me, and he said it was disconnected," explained Hill.

When FOX 8 tried to reach Cornelius Washington on the phone number he listed on his contract, a message said the number's incorrect.

When FOX 8 drove by the Airline Dr. address in Metairie that's spelled out on the Southern Storm Products contract, we learned the company's been evicted. The managers of M.A. Green Shopping Center tell the FOX 8 Defenders the last time Southern Storm Products paid rent was in April. They say the tenants skipped out and never left a forwarding address.

The Louisiana Secretary of State's website shows Southern Storm Products was registered with the state not quite a year ago on August 5, 2011 with that same Airline Dr. address, but under 'agent' and 'officer' of the company, it lists 'Donyale Andrews.'

We tried to track her down at her Kenner home, but didn't reach her right away. By phone, Andrews told FOX 8 she sold Southern Storm Products to Cornelius Washington in November 2011 for $2,000 cash. She couldn't provide us with proof of that in writing, and we found in December 2011 she deposited at least one check for the screen company.

"He [Washington] told me, when I did speak to him one time, that he was taking over the business of the young lady who came to my house... that she was going out of business... and give him more time to make some money for the screens. But I'm still wondering what happened to the $4,000," wondered Bailey.

Also, it wasn't until June 18 of this year that Washington officially became the registered agent and officer of Southern Storm Products, still listing the Airline Dr. office.  But remember, the shopping center said they were evicted in May.  Plus, two days before Washington officially became the company's 'officer' or the person in charge, he sent a letter dated June 16 to John Bailey, which said Southern Storm Products was going out of business. In it, Washington said, "your money will be returned to you as soon as possible. Please be patient as I move forward in this transition... it is my hope to have all funds returned to you in a timely manner."

Bailey said the letter didn't have a return address, but Washington gives an Ascension Parish address in Geismar, near Gonzales, on the Secretary of State's website.

On top of the homeowners' concerns of possible fraud, the Better Business Bureau questions the agency's logo displayed on Southern Storm Product's contract.

"We did research on it. We checked it out, and we find that this particular company is not an accredited business. Therefore this is misrepresentation," said Cynthia Albert of the BBB.

In general, the U.S. Attorney's Office says it's busy dealing with Katrina-related fraud cases, and while he isn't aware yet of the specifics of these homeowners' concerns who believe their federal dollars were stolen, Jim Letten tells FOX 8 it's cases like this that his office wants to 'sink its teeth in.'

"Because it is only in that way that we can hopefully track the money and hopefully, down the road... deter other individuals from doing this in future disasters," said Letten.

Now with the fast-approaching peak of hurricane season, residents worry their long-awaited storm screens may not make it.

The Secretary of State's Office says it has no authority to enforce any action, and because the job is considered to be home improvement and less than $7,500, the LA State Licensing Board for Contractors says you don't need a license. The state suggests people file complaints with the Road Home program's fraud line, the state attorney general and your local law enforcement agency.

Also, contact the FOX 8 Defenders and volunteers with the National Council of Jewish Women at 1-877-670-6397.