South Florida

They lived 1,200 miles from Houston, but cashed in on Hurricane Harvey relief, feds say

Cars are flooded near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Harvey rise in Houston in 2017.
Cars are flooded near the Addicks Reservoir as floodwaters from Harvey rise in Houston in 2017. AP

Miami-Dade residents Fredna Frederic and Courtney Lillie Gillis lived about 1,200 miles from Houston, but that didn’t stop them from trying to cash in on disaster-relief benefits for Hurricane Harvey victims in 2017, federal authorities say.

Frederic and Gillis swindled a Red Cross program by submitting 15 claims for $400 each totaling $6,000 that they did not qualify for because they didn’t live in Houston during the hurricane, according to an indictment filed in Miami federal court.

Frederic, 27, and Gillis, 28, arrested Wednesday, pleaded not guilty to a wire-fraud conspiracy charge and three wire-fraud counts for claims filed in October 2017 after Harvey flooded Houston, leaving thousands of people homeless and more than $125 billion in property damage. Each of the charges carries up to 20 years in prison.

Both defendants were granted $50,000 bonds before trial.

“My client has pleaded not guilty to all the charges in the indictment,” Frederic’s defense attorney, Saam Zangeneh, said Thursday. “We will comment further after we receive and review the evidence.”

Gillis’ attorney, the Miami federal public defender’s office, could not be reached for comment.

According to the indictment, Frederic and Gillis conspired to misuse the names, addresses and dates of birth of people who lived in the Houston area so they could qualify for the Red Cross relief funds. The nonprofit agency’s program allowed eligible victims to collect $400 each from various participating retailers, including Walmart. Once their information was verified, Frederic and Gillis received a reference code that could be redeemed for the $400 payment.

Prosecutors said that Frederic contacted Gillis, who worked at Walmart in the Miami area, and offered her a kickback if she processed the reference codes. On 15 occasions, Frederic provided the reference codes to Gillis, who then entered them into Walmart’s computer system and issued payments of $400 per code to Frederic and other unnamed co-conspirators, prosecutors said.

The Harvey disaster-relief case, investigated by the U.S. Secret Service, is being prosecuted by Marty Fulgueira Elfenbein.

Jay Weaver writes about bad guys who specialize in con jobs, rip-offs and squirreling away millions. Since joining the Miami Herald in 1999, he’s covered the federal courts nonstop, from Elian’s custody battle to A-Rod’s steroid abuse. He was on the Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2001. He and three Herald colleagues were Pulitzer Prize finalists for explanatory reporting in 2019 for a series on gold smuggled from South America to Miami.