Pryor Holds Administration Nominees Until Arkansas Couple Receives Resolution on FEMA Error

73-Year-Old Arkansan with FEMA Debt Sent to Treasury for Collections

WASHINGTON D.C. –   U.S. Senator Mark Pryor today took to the Senate floor to put the U.S. Department of the Treasury on notice that he will become a thorn in their side if immediate action is not taken to help an Arkansas couple caught up in government bureaucracy.

Pryor is working to help the Guglielmanas family of Mountain View, Arkansas who are victims of a FEMA error.  In 2008, after completing an extensive application process and home inspection, FEMA approved $27,000 in disaster assistance for their home repairs. In March 2011, FEMA informed them that they were never eligible for assistance and that they must repay the funds within 30 days or face high interest charges or other collection actions. After failing to pay, FEMA has now sent the debt to the Department of the Treasury for collections.  An additional $10,000 has been added for penalties and interest.

Below is Pryor’s Senate floor speech putting the Treasury Department on notice that he will stop all of their nominees from moving through the Senate confirmation process until the department addresses the situation:

In some ways, I hate to come to the floor today and talk about this because I very seldom do this, but I am announcing to all my colleagues and to the Administration that I’m putting a hold on all Treasury Department nominations until I get something resolved.

Let me back up and tell the story. Some of my colleagues are familiar with this story because this has come up a few times before, and I have already spoken on the floor a couple of times about this and certainly in the Homeland Security Committee I’ve spoken about this. A few years ago, in Arkansas, we had some floods. In this one particular area around Mountain View, Arkansas, some houses were flooded. FEMA came in. In one particular case, in the Guglielmanas case, they talked to this couple – they are on Social Security. They talked to this couple about how they are entitled to FEMA recovery money to repair their home. FEMA was actually in the home, took pictures, helped them fill out the paperwork, walked them through the entire process. They ended up getting $27,000 in FEMA money for disaster recovery. The Guglielmanas did absolutely everything by the book. They followed all of FEMA’s direction, they did it exactly picture-perfect, and exactly the way you will think all citizens should conduct their business.

Then three years later, they get a notice in the mail and FEMA says they messed up. We shouldn’t have given you that money because of some technical reason, and because of that, we now want all that money back. Well, they worked a great hardship on this family. This is supposed to be government of the people, by the people and for the people. That’s not what has happened in this case. This has worked a great hardship on this family. There were lots of community efforts around these floods. Local civic clubs, churches, just the community at large rolled out to help people. The Guglielmanas said they didn’t need that because they had FEMA’s help. They have foregone a lot of local assistance, a lot of charity assistance, just a lot of general help from their friends and neighbors because of FEMA.  Now, FEMA has come back and said you us the entire $27,000. This could ruin them financially.

I have met with FEMA Director Fugate. He and I had what I would think of as productive conversations. We’re trying to get an amendment on the existing statute. We’re working on that.  We’re working a bill through the system right now in the Senate.  I worked with colleagues on the Homeland Security Committee and the Appropriations Committee.   I’m not saying we would have unanimous agreement on my approach on that, but certainly I’m trying to work with anybody here in the Senate to make this bill better. 

Unfortunately, what has happened in the last few days is FEMA has now taken the additional step of turning this matter over to the Department of the Treasury for debt collection.  To add insult to injury and to rub salt in the wounds, this $27,000 debt now with fines and interest has gone to $37,000 in debt.  $37,000 in debt that these folks were assured by the government that they were completely entitled to because this was flood recovery, and the only reason they are not entitled to it is because of some technical issues that FEMA should have recognized from day one.  They should never have offered to help these people, but what they have done is they have now caused them great injury. 

So, Madam President, this is really a matter of equity and fairness.  I think at this point what I would say is enough is enough.  We need to get this resolved for this family and maybe a few others.  It’s not just localized in Arkansas.  You’re going to see this happen over and over around the country because FEMA has a backlog of these cases.  It’s a long story that got tied up in litigation for a few years, but nonetheless there is a backlog of these cases.  I can almost guarantee you that virtually every Senator in this chamber at some point is going to have to deal with this.  So I would hope that you all would listen to what I’m saying and hopefully help me get this resolved, but that’s why, Madam President, I am putting a hold on all the Treasury nominees.  We need to get this resolved.  We’re going to do whatever it takes to get it resolved.  We want to resolve this situation fairly for this family in Arkansas.  And again, they are just the first of many that you’re going to see that have this same type of problem. 

FEMA has done them harm.  Our government has done them harm, put them at a disadvantage.  These people clearly relied on the government, relied on FEMA to their detriment, and they’re paying the price—paying the penalty for that now.  And like I said when the I.R.S. and the Treasury gets involved, there are penalties and interest.  American citizens should not be treated this way, especially those that are playing by the rules and really don’t have any other recourse.  So, Madam President, that’s all I wanted to say in my morning business.   I see that we have several here to talk on other matters, so before I close, I just want to say I am putting Treasury on notice that I’m going to hold all of their nominees until we sit down and work through this and hopefully get a good, fair result for this one family in Arkansas.  Madam President, with that, I yield the floor.