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Investigators: Decision isn't up to Red CrossPENNY BROWN ROBERTS


American Red Cross officials are offering amnesty to law enforcement officers and others who wrongly obtained disaster benefits if they return the money - a promise investigators say isn't theirs to grant and could hamper prosecutions.



On Sunday, Victor Howell, executive director of the charity's Baton Rouge chapter, said he is "encouraging people to turn in debit cards if they feel they don't deserve them; we would accept those back."Asked whether law-enforcement officers and others who return aid to which they weren't entitled still face punishment, he said, "If people came forward and turned those funds in, we would probably not prosecute."Devorah Goldburg, a spokeswoman for the national headquarters of the American Red Cross, backed that statement Sunday, saying, "If he said it was the policy, then it probably is the policy.""I don't know 100 percent that that is the policy, but if that is what Vic is saying, then I would stand by what he's saying," Goldburg said. "I do know people have turned in money, and if they're turning it in, then we don't have to prosecute. Why would we prosecute if they turned the money back in? We prosecute because we want the money back, so it seems weird to do it if we have the money."At issue is a September memo the Union of Police Local 237 sent via Baton Rouge Police Department e-mail, encouraging members and their families to apply for the Red Cross benefits "whether you sustained a loss, or not."

The memo also refers to the financial assistance debit cards the American Red Cross distributed to those who suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina as "gift cards," and insists the cards were a special benefit for union members.

It still isn't clear just how many local law enforcement officers may have applied for disaster assistance despite having suffered no damage from the hurricane.

Two weeks ago, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office launched an investigation into the matter. Two deputies who were targets in the ongoing probe - Sgt. Jason Palmer and Cpl. Chad Montgomery - resigned last week.

U.S. Attorney David Dugas still won't say whether the national Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force is investigating the police-union memo. He did say authorities will investigate and prosecute fraudulent claims against the American Red Cross if federal crimes have been committed.

Speaking generally, he also said there is no automatic immunity from prosecution for those who return money in any federal fraud case.

"The decision to prosecute is the government's, not the victim's," Dugas said. "While the victim's desires and cooperation can be taken into account by the prosecutor, ultimately the prosecutor makes that decision."Dugas noted that U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has mandated a "zero-tolerance policy" for fraud related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"Therefore, the position of this office is that all fraud cases will be prosecuted," Dugas said. "The fact that someone who has obtained money fraudulently decides to voluntarily return the money is a factor we'll take into account in deciding how and what to charge, but it does not mean they won't be prosecuted."Sheriff's Office Col. Greg Phares, whose office continues to investigate the matter, said he would not recommend to prosecutors that "anyone who committed fraud in obtaining hurricane benefits be granted amnesty just because the fraud has been discovered and they returned the money.

"Although the Red Cross perhaps did not know fraud was being committed, those who committed it did," Phares said. "Just because you return the money to the bank that you robbed when you find out they know who you are doesn't absolve you of bank robbery." Phares, the agency's chief criminal deputy, also acknowledged that the American Red Cross' promise of amnesty could pose legal problems if prosecutors do decide charges are warranted against those who come forward. He said he plans to immediately discuss with his investigators "ways to minimize potential prosecution problems due to this development," but declined to elaborate.

Howell and Goldburg said some people already have returned disaster aid after realizing they weren't supposed to get it.

Neither, however, would confirm whether any Baton Rouge law-enforcement officers were among them. They also declined to say whether the agency has been contacted by local or federal investigators looking into the case.

"It is true that some people got aid and didn't know they weren't supposed to," Goldburg said. "It really was a mistake. In the heat of the moment, when we're trying to get people help when they need it, it is possible."
 
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