NEW ORLEANS -- With thousands of Road Home grantees still not back in their homes, a group calling itself the Louisiana Recovery Campaign is sending misleading letters to homeowners warning them of an 'urgent' Dec. 20 deadline to 'avoid incurring penalties and/or default.'
But there is no Dec. 20 deadline.
And the Louisiana Recovery Campaign has nothing to do with the Road Home or the state and has no authority to impose penalties or hold homeowners in default.
Our investigation found that the group is reaching out to Road Home recipients to try to buy their properties if they are not going to rebuild. We also found that they scared some homeowners in the process, especially those who complied with the Road Home rules but were worried that some problem had re-emerged six or seven years after they thought they were done.
Many remember all too well how the state-run program had a propensity to lose their documents, forcing them to have to send proof of compliance over and over again.
'I thought this was the LRA and they were going to say they lost the packet and I'd have to send it in again,' said Sue Spilsbury, a Lake Vista homeowner who got the Louisiana Recovery Campaign form-letter last week.
The Louisiana Recovery Campaign certainly makes itself look a lot like the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the now-defunct state agency that created the Road Home program in 2006. Its logo uses the exact same kind of fleur-de-lis and places it in the upper left of the letter, just as the LRA used to on its correspondence.
The letters use the same font for homeowners' addresses, and they include a blank second page with 'This Page Has Been Intentionally Left Blank' printed in the center, something often found on official government documents.
And with the letters coming shortly after an extensive investigation by WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate into thousands of properties that have received the Road Home grants but failed to rebuild, the language about a deadline and possible default was particularly nerve-wracking.
'It scared me,' Spilsbury said. 'Boy, I called them within minutes. I thought, if I'm gonna get hit with some penalty or I have to cough up the LRA grant because I didn't reply by December 20? I said, 'Well, that's worth a phone call.' So I called right away.'
Spilsbury left a frantic message saying she was already in compliance, having rebuilt and reoccupied her home by 2008. She heard back quickly from the campaign's broker/caseworker, Selena Carey.
Carey left a voicemail stating that Spilsbury got the letter 'in error,' and clarifying that they are 'Recovery Campaign, not affiliated with Road Home,' a disclaimer that's included at the bottom of the letters in fine print.
Carey then asked if Spilsbury had 'some other properties you think you'd be interested in selling,' which is when Spilsbury finally realized what the Louisiana Recovery Campaign was all about: Buying properties from those who had not rebuilt.
We spoke to Carey, who didn't want to go on camera. She apologized for scaring anyone, then insisted their effort has gotten a 'great response.'
She sent a statement by email from John Kendall, identified as Louisiana Recovery Campaign's director: 'The LRC saw a need and we responded. We look forward to continuing to rebuild New Orleans, the city we love.'
Kendall's statement also said that the group got names and addresses from public assessor's records, so some of the mass-mailed letters went to residents who didn't even get Road Home grants.
But when we asked Carey what authority they had to invoke an 'urgent' deadline for homeowners to avoid 'penalties,' she said she had to go.
Another curious part of the letters is this: 'There has NOT been any change to your current Road Home status. Therefore, the covenant still needs to be satisfied in order to not incur any penalties or risk default.'
That statement suggests that the homeowner has not satisfied the covenant requiring him or her to rebuild and reoccupy the home, when in fact, Carey admitted that her group knows nothing about anyone's Road Home status.
The state Division of Administration says it has notified the state's inspector general and the Louisiana attorney general of the group's activities.
'We continue to caution road home participants about being deceived by the content of these letters, as compliance in the program can only be gained through the Office of Community Development/Disaster Recovery Unit,' said division spokesman Doug Baker.
Baker added that anyone with questions or concerns should contact the state agency at 1-888-762-3252, extension 2 for assistance. Spilsbury said she is willing to give the Louisiana Recovery Campaign the benefit of the doubt as trying to perform a service, rather than running any kind of scam. But she said they went about it all wrong.
'I think it would be better for these people to say, 'If your money has escaped you and your house is not fixed, call us. Maybe we can work out something with the state, take title to your property and satisfy the state,' something to that effect,' she said. 'It would have been much, much more straight-forward than scaring the devil out of people who just glanced at this at the end of a hard day.'