Tornado-relief payments come under scrutiny in Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Some people unaffected by tornadoes that ravaged Kentucky in late 2021 were mistakenly sent payments from a relief fund funneling private donations into the region, the state treasurer’s office said Wednesday.

State Treasurer Allison Ball’s office said it canceled payment on 192 checks valued at $192,000 from the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund after being notified of misdirected payments.

Gov. Andy Beshear, who set up the relief fund, defended its role in the region’s painstaking recovery from deadly tornadoes that pummeled parts of western Kentucky in December 2021.

Beshear pointed to errors in data provided to his administration as the reason any checks were sent out erroneously. Those amounts, he said, would add up to a fraction of the total assistance.

“We’ll work to find any dollar that went somewhere that it shouldn’t have and to get it back,” the Democratic governor told reporters Wednesday. “But there are a lot of people out there who rightfully received those checks that are helping their families.”

The Lexington Herald-Leader and WPSD-TV both reported on the misdirected checks.

The tornado relief fund has raised more than $52 million through charitable donations from around the world, according to its website. The fund paid funeral expenses of storm victims and has aided affected homeowners, renters and farmers in the region.

Late last year, the state Public Protection Cabinet issued more than $10 million in $1,000 increments from the relief fund. Within days, the state treasurer’s office was hearing from people who reported they received checks despite not being directly affected by the storms, Ball’s office said.

Recipients of the checks were identified as tornado victims either by insurance companies or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Beshear’s administration said in explaining any discrepancies. The canceled checks amounted to less than 2% of the total checks, it said.

“Every check that we’ve sent, we’ve gotten the name and address from either FEMA or from an insurance company, and have verified through their system that that individual was a tornado survivor,” Beshear told reporters.

By relying on those outside sources, the state did not have to use donated funds for administrative costs, meaning all the funds went directly to survivors, his administration said.

It means that storm victims “got a check for $1,000 immediately and not one for $500,” Beshear said. But the governor acknowledged that “sadly, none of these systems are perfect.”

“In a call with the Public Protection Cabinet, FEMA confirmed that we received the most recent data” and that it was “filtered appropriately,” said Kristin Voskuhl, the cabinet’s communications director.

Some checks required a change of name or were returned with no explanation, Voskuhl said.

FEMA did not immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comments Wednesday, but FEMA spokesman Jim Homstad told the Lexington Herald-Leader that applications for assistance deemed ineligible for payment by the agency wouldn’t have been on the list of approved households turned over to the Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet.

Ball, the state’s two-term Republican treasurer, had previously expressed concerns about the administration of the relief funds. Ball, who is running for state auditor in this year’s elections in Kentucky, had urged the cabinet to conduct an annual audit of the fund.

“It is of utmost importance that dollars held by the state are spent in a transparent and accountable way,” Ball said in a statement Wednesday.

The cabinet said it’s administering the fund “in accordance with the state’s accounting practices.”

A similar relief fund supported by private donations was set up by Beshear to assist victims of the massive flooding that inundated portions of eastern Kentucky last summer. The governor has routinely touted both relief funds and given updates on the use of donations to assist victims.

Meanwhile, other Kentucky Republicans pounced on the reports of misdirected payments to attack Beshear, who is seeking a second term in the GOP-trending Bluegrass State.“Private individuals and corporations stepped up to assist western Kentucky recover from those tornadoes, which brought tragedy and devastation to our state, and the Beshear administration has just been sending out checks willy-nilly,” said state GOP spokesman Sean Southard.

The governor’s response to the devastating tornadoes and flooding, as well as a string of economic development successes, have contributed to his strong approval ratings. Beshear brushed off the criticism, saying the tornado-relief funds have “done a huge amount of work” to assist western Kentucky in its recovery.

“We ought to, in a bipartisan way, say ‘thank you’ to the donors,” he said.

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