IOWA DERECHO 2020

Chicago man charged with making false FEMA claims on vacant Cedar Rapids house after derecho

Investigator said 15 others also made claims on same vacant house

Homes are damaged on the north side of Cedar Rapids on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Homes are damaged on the north side of Cedar Rapids on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A 23-year-old Chicago man was charged Monday in federal court for making a false claim on a house in attempt to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency benefits for damage caused by the August derecho.

Tavonte Donnell Stewart was charged in U.S. District Court with one count of derecho benefits fraud.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Roberts ordered Stewart to remain in jail pending a detention hearing set for Wednesday.

The complaint states Stewart applied for disaster benefits Sept. 15 from FEMA, concerning a property on Oakland Road NE that was damaged in the Aug. 10 storm. He claimed on his application that his primary residence at the time of the storm was in Cedar Rapids, but he actually was living in the Chicago area, where he was on federal supervised release for a felony conviction, according to the complaint affidavit.

There were 15 others who had applied for disaster benefits in connection with the same property, the affidavit states.

When FEMA contacted Epic Property Management, owner of the residence, the manager said the property had been vacant since June and wasn’t occupied at the time of the storm and had only minor roof damage, according to the affidavit.

Stewart had applied for additional FEMA benefits Sept. 22, which concerned a property in California, the affidavit states.

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During a records check Nov. 19, a homeland security investigator found Stewart had been released from prison and was on supervised release about June 29, 2018, for a counterfeiting conviction in Illinois, the affidavit states. He remains on probation.

The investigator contacted Stewart’s probation officer, who mailed him a summary of Stewart’s post-custody conduct, residences and contact information Nov. 20. All of Stewart’s residences were in Chicago and Bolingbrook, Ill.

Stewart didn’t receive any benefits on the claim he made for a residence in Felton, Calif., because it couldn’t be verified.

On the Cedar Rapids claim, he received $5,927 — $3,719 of it was for personal property damage and $2,208 was for rental assistance. This claim was paid to Stewart on Sept. 22.

If convicted, Stewart faces up to 30 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and five years of supervised release following any prison time.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Vavricek and was investigated by the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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