Florida Keys

These five Keys men attempted to rip off FEMA after Hurricane Irma, authorities say

The damage from last September’s Hurricane Irma was extensive, including this area of Big Pine Key.
The damage from last September’s Hurricane Irma was extensive, including this area of Big Pine Key. Miami Herald staff

Five Florida Keys men ripped off the federal government and received thousands of dollars in recovery money after Hurricane Irma struck last year, the Monroe County State Attorney’s Office said.

Edward Bortree, Scott Bruno, Francesco Drago, James Kozmer and Mark Sell are all accused of lying about where they lived at the time the Category 4 storm hit, Sept. 10, 2017, and collecting money they didn’t deserve from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

All but one are from Marathon, which was among the hardest-hit areas, along with parts of the Lower Keys.

Each case is separate. State Attorney’s Office Investigator Francisco Zamora said there are a number of similar cases still under investigation.

Bortree, 70, of Marathon, was arrested for grand theft Nov. 28.

Zamora said 11 days after Irma struck, Bortree and a woman applied for assistance, saying their property on 91st Street was damaged, along with personal property, and that the utilities were out. They allegedly put in their FEMA application the property was their primary residence.

Bortree and the woman received $17,199 for home repairs, a travel trailer valued at $12,900 and $3,364 in rental assistance.

On Sept. 25, 2017, Bortree filed another claim with FEMA, stating his primary residence was a boat docked at 35th Street in Marathon. FEMA provided him with $3,364 in rental assistance and $1,000 for repairs to the boat.

Bortree had been living on the boat for four years and the 91st Street home was not his primary residence when Irma struck, investigators said. He was arrested only for the money he received for the 91st Street property.

Bruno, 39, was arrested Nov. 29 for felony grand theft. On Nov. 7, 2017, he received $3,364 in rental assistance and $29,764 for replacement housing for a Marathon trailer that wasn’t his primary residence, according to the arrest affidavit.

Bruno owned the trailer but had rented it out to two people since February 2015. The tenants lived there until Irma, Zamora said. They filed to receive FEMA assistance but were denied because Bruno had previously applied on Sept. 16, 2017, using the trailer’s address as his primary residence.

Drago, 40, of Key West, was arrested Nov. 27 for felony grand theft after Zamora said he lied about living in a mobile home on Park Avenue when Irma struck. He received $3,864 from FEMA. Drago filed his claim for assistance three days after the hurricane.

Drago lived in the trailer with another person from March 2017 until July 14, 2017, when he moved out. “When Drago moved out, he removed all of his property from the residence,” according to the arrest affidavit.

Kozmer, 58, also didn’t live at the Marathon house he claimed as his primary residence and would not have been eligible for federal financial assistance he received following the hurricane, reports state. Kozmer was charged with grand theft on Nov. 28.

The true resident of the house on Calle Ensueno near Sombrero Beach alerted FEMA after the agency denied his family financial help because the agency told him someone — Kozmer — had already applied using the same address and received $3,364 in rental assistance on Sept. 19, 2017.

Kozmer is accused of claiming the Calle Ensueno house as his primary residence, even though he had no personal property there and didn’t have keys to it. The owner of the house confirmed Kozmer was not the tenant.

Sell, 58, of Marathon, was arrested Dec. 6 on felony counts of grand theft and uttering a false instrument. He received $3,364 in rental assistance, $5,100 for personal property replacement and $600 for insurance coverage — all from FEMA — but allegedly was not eligible for the money.

Sell said his primary residence was on 72nd Street, Oceanside, in Marathon but he allegedly lived on Aviation Boulevard. In his applications to FEMA, he reportedly forged a woman’s name on documents saying he lived at the 72nd Street house, according to authorities.

Sell initially filed a FEMA claim on Sept. 23, 2017, and it was denied on Oct. 24, 2017. He appealed on Oct. 26, 2017, and on April 10, FEMA denied him again, citing lack of supporting documentation.

On April 28, Sell submitted what seemed to be a pay stub from his employer for July and August 2017 that listed the damaged 72nd Street house as his address. FEMA finally granted him the money on May 2, 2018.

In all of the cases, Zamora worked with FEMA and agents Brian Calvary and Joseph Casciotta with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.

Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.