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City Council calls on state to drop lawsuits exposed in WWL-TV investigation

Council President Helena Moreno called the attempt “ridiculous and heartbreaking." She was joined by 6 of her 7 colleagues in sponsoring the resolution.

The New Orleans City Council responded to a WWL-TV investigation with The Times-Picayune and ProPublica by passing a unanimous resolution Thursday calling on the state to drop thousands of lawsuits against Hurricane Katrina survivors.

The news organizations’ investigation last week revealed that Louisiana was suing 3,493 of its own citizens seeking to take back more than $103 million in Road Home rebuilding grants. Overall, the state is suing more than 4,000 Road Home recipients to take back about $300 million, even though court records indicate at least 3,000 of them successfully rebuilt and reoccupied their homes in accordance with Road Home rules.

New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno called that “ridiculous and heartbreaking,” and she was joined by six of her seven colleagues in sponsoring the resolution. It says the City Council stands with U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, in calling on the state to “cease and immediately withdraw all legal actions taken against Road Home elevation recipients.”

The one councilmember who didn’t sponsor the resolution was Joe Giarrusso, who voted for it but said he typically doesn’t sponsor a resolution “unless it involves city action.”

WWL-TV, The Times-Picayune and ProPublica analyzed the state’s lawsuits against Road Home recipients and found it’s specifically trying to take back more than $100 million in elevation grants from homeowners who didn’t lift their homes higher off the ground, as they promised to do when they got $30,000 elevation grants to supplement their Road Home rebuilding grants.

But the state’s own records at the time showed $30,000 wasn’t nearly enough to lift the average house, and state leaders acknowledged that many recipients needed the extra money to complete repairs. Road Home rules were officially changed in 2013 to allow the elevation grants to be used on repairs, but that was five years after most of the elevation grants were paid and by then, many homeowners lacked the receipts to prove how they spent the money.

Office of Community Development Executive Director Pat Forbes, who oversees the Road Home, said the state does not want to be suing homeowners, but has been under pressure to recover the funds by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided Louisiana with $11.6 billion for the Road Home program.

At Thursday’s meeting, however, City Councilman JP Morrell blamed OCD for mismanaging the Road Home and failing to push back against HUD to avoid suing law-abiding citizens.

“And the same people at OCD who created the busted Road Home program with the busted requirements are still there today pursuing this ridiculous policy to hurt people who move back in their homes,” Morrell said.

The joint investigation by WWL-TV, The Times-Picayune and ProPublica was viewed more than 900,000 times online and spurred anger on social media and commentary on international TV and radio shows.

RELATED: Katrina survivors sued by Louisiana after using grant money to rebuild

RELATED: Louisiana is suing nearly 4,000 residents to get back $300 million in Katrina rebuilding money

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