Police: Katrina aid used to buy drugs

NORCROSS - Police say three Louisiana men accused of dealing drugs out of an extended-stay motel were using handouts to Hurricane Katrina victims to get free motel rooms and fund a drug habit.

Investigators who were looking into an unrelated crime just after midnight Thursday encountered 22-year-old Ronald Michael Claude, Gary Lee Leonard, 23, and Michael Joseph Sanson, 20, at the motel at 5885 Oakbrook Parkway. The trio provided police with an address on Cindy Place in New Orleans that is believed to be valid.

After noticing a small amount of marijuana in plain view inside the motel room, investigators secured the room and got a search warrant. Officers looked through the room and found an unspecified quantity of cocaine packaged for individual sale, said Officer Darren Moloney, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Police Department.

Sanson reportedly admitted making a fraudulent Louisiana ID card to show several area hotels and get free rooms. He was also carrying $600 obtained from the American Red Cross, Moloney said.

All the men bragged about how easy it is to obtain free rooms simply by displaying a Louisiana identification card.

"Apparently all they do is show the Louisiana ID, and the motel gives them a room and sends the bill to FEMA," Moloney said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Leonard was the most vocal of the group, Moloney said. He reportedly boasted to police that he had two hotel rooms and a house to reside in. Leonard said he didn't want to stay at the house because his relatives live there. Leonard also confided that he supported his $20 a day drug habit with money from FEMA and the American Red Cross earmarked for Hurricane Katrina victims, Moloney said.

Police asked Leonard if he thought it was right to use federal money to pay for drugs and hotel rooms. Leonard replied "he and others like him deserve this money because they are from New Orleans," and "because the government is paying for everything, it is all right," Moloney said.

Sanson, Leonard and Claude are charged with one misdemeanor count of possessing marijuana and a felony count of possessing crack cocaine with the intent to distribute it. They are being held without bond at the Gwinnett County Detention Center.

Police are still trying to determine whether they can bring any additional charges against the men. The case may be forwarded to the FBI, Moloney said.

Last month, U.S. Attorney David Nahmias said his office in Atlanta has prosecuted two people for defrauding the government to obtain funds for Hurricane Katrina victims. The proliferation of such cases has prompted the creation of a Hurricane Katrina Task Force, a U.S. attorney-led coalition of federal agencies designed to deter, investigate and prosecute disaster related federal crimes such as charity fraud and insurance fraud.