Accusations fly over National Guard fire damage payouts


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HERRIMAN -- Since the wildfire in Herriman two weeks ago, the National Guard has paid out more than $2 million in cleanup claims. Accusations are flying that some residents are taking big piles of cash and spending it on something else.

The alleged strategy is a bit like taking an insurance payment for a dented fender, and then deciding not to get the fender fixed. In this case, some homeowners are allegedly taking cleanup and damage payments from the government as high as $15,000 for a single house and spending the money on expensive furniture and vacations.

"Our damage is primarily smoke damage," said homeowner Linda Dietz. She hired a cleaning crew and also did some of her own cleaning.
"Our damage is primarily smoke damage," said homeowner Linda Dietz. She hired a cleaning crew and also did some of her own cleaning.

The accusations are coming from numerous cleanup and restoration contractors who are furious about the way the National Guard is handling the aftermath of the so-called Machine Gun Fire. It was started by sparks during machine gun training at Camp Williams on Sept. 19. The blaze destroyed three Herriman homes and inflicted smoke damage on hundreds of others.

Homeowner Linda Dietz filed a claim with the National Guard, one of at least 1,500 that have been filed. Her home was in the direct path of the fire but was spared.

"Our damage is primarily smoke damage," she said. She hired a cleaning crew and also did some of her own cleaning. An insurance company is covering most of the cost and is expected to bill the National Guard later.

But the National Guard gave Dietz $1,300 in cash. She says she spent it legitimately on cleanup work, and showed receipts to National Guard adjustors.

She says, from her perspective, the National Guard is doing a great job of honoring claims. They're "extremely organized, very diplomatic," Dieitz said. "They showed a real strong concern."

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But many cleanup and restoration contractors working in the Herriman neighborhoods are frustrated and furious with the National Guard policy of handing out piles of cash.

Roger Empey of R & E Cleaning & Restoration said, "It's been a devastating week financially."

Empey says he spent long hours preparing estimates for several homeowners only to be stabbed in the back.

"What they're doing is they're canceling our services after they have been paid, and we're no longer needed. They have cash in hand," he said.

The fundamental problem, Empey said, is that the National Guard is handing out money based on contractor's estimates -- often $10,000 to $15,000 a house -- without requiring proof the work is ever actually done. Homeowners get the cash and clean the house themselves or decide they can live with it the way it is.

"Well, our assumption," said National Guard spokesman Col. Hank McIntire, "is that a claimant, when they come to make a claim, and we pay that claim, that the funds will be used for the purpose for which they have come."

McIntire acknowledges, though, there is no system for monitoring what's done with the cleanup money. "It's up to the integrity of the person receiving those funds to use them for the purpose for which they were paid," McIntire said.

"[Homeowners are] canceling our services after they have been paid, and we're no longer needed. They have cash in hand," said Roger Empey of R & E Cleaning & Restoration.
"[Homeowners are] canceling our services after they have been paid, and we're no longer needed. They have cash in hand," said Roger Empey of R & E Cleaning & Restoration.

Empey said the problem could have been avoided if the National Guard had set up a system of paying contractors who actually do the work. The payments could be based on invoices and detailed statements of services rendered.

"Rather than writing a check to the contractor so the work will happen," Empey said, "they're providing cash" to the homeowner.

Empey said he happened to be shopping at a nearby furniture store last week and asked the manager how his business was going. "He told me, 'Business is great because everybody with their money from the fire has been coming in and buying their bedroom sets and things,'" he said.

Another contractor said he gave an estimate to a homeowner, who took the estimate to the National Guard and received a cash payment. Then he canceled the contractor's cleanup plan, telling him he plans to use the National Guard money to take his family to Disneyland for Christmas.

A prospective customer of Empey's was disappointed when Empey inspected his house and found no damage and no reason for a cleanup. The customer went to another firm to get an estimate he could take to the National Guard.

Empey said, "Somebody else provided them an estimate for $4,000. They were going to take (it) to get $4,000 in cash. It was unjustified."

McIntire said the entire system depends on integrity. "We've tried to show integrity by acknowledging that we're responsible for the situation we have," he said. "And we hope that our citizens demonstrate integrity also with the funds they receive from us to compensate them for their losses."

E-mail: hollenhorst@ksl.com

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