FEMA appointees lack relief experience

Five senior officials named under Bush had few disaster qualifications

Katrina's Wake

September 09, 2005|By Ken Silverstein | Ken Silverstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - In the days since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown has come under withering attack, with critics charging that his lack of prior experience in dealing with natural disasters contributed to his agency's poor performance.

But Brown is just one of at least five current and former senior FEMA officials appointed under President Bush whose professional backgrounds showed few qualifications in the area of disaster relief when they arrived at the agency.

As the administration struggles to counter negative national perceptions about its response, Vice President Dick Cheney defended the administration's FEMA appointees in remarks to reporters yesterday.

"You've got to have people at the top who respond to and are selected by presidents, and you pick the best people you can to do the jobs that need to be done," said Cheney while touring the stricken Gulf Coast.

"We've also got some great career professionals, an absolute and vital part of the operation - couldn't do it without them. They're the ones that continue the expertise from administration to administration, who have got the experience of having been through all of this before and provide the quality service that needs to be provided."

But Democrats in Congress have attacked Brown and other top FEMA appointees.

"FEMA is an important agency and needs to be run by professionals, not political cronies," said Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, the ranking minority member of the Committee on Government Reform. "Instead of a loyalty test, we need people with experience and competence."

More than a year before the hurricane hit New Orleans, the head of a labor union representing FEMA workers sent a letter to members of Congress charging that "emergency managers at FEMA have been supplanted on the job by politically-connected contractors and by novice employees with little background or knowledge" of disaster management."

"As ... professionalism diminishes, FEMA is gradually losing its ability to function and to help disaster victims," the letter said.

People appointed to run domestic government agencies frequently have political connections. But for many top positions some relevant background is required as well.

Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University, said that for many years, FEMA was a dumping ground for the politically connected.

But during the Clinton years, Light said, FEMA director James Lee Witt "built a serious hierarchy around expertise. Somewhere along the line, FEMA has returned to being a destination of last resort for political appointees."

Brown, a career attorney who was active in Republican Party politics, was hired to be FEMA's general counsel by Joseph Allbaugh, an old friend and the agency's first director under Bush.

Before coming to FEMA, Brown had worked for nearly a decade at the International Arabian Horse Association.

Allbaugh - a long-time aide to Bush who had managed his 2000 campaign - resigned as FEMA director in 2003 and opened up a consulting firm that helped companies win contracts in Iraq. Brown, who had risen to become Allbaugh's top deputy, took charge.

Brown's acting deputy director, Patrick James Rhode, began his professional career as an "anchor/reporter with network affiliated television stations in Alabama and Arkansas," according to FEMA's Web site.

Rhode subsequently did public relations work for several state agencies in Texas before becoming deputy director of national advance operations for Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

Before moving to FEMA, Rhode served as a special assistant to the president and White House liaison with the Commerce Department. He donated $2,000 to Bush's 2004 campaign.

Both Allbaugh and Brown were Oklahoma natives involved in that state's Republican politics. FEMA's acting deputy chief of staff, Brooks Altshuler, also hails from Oklahoma. And like Rhode, Altshuler was an advance man for President Bush.

FEMA did not return several calls seeking comment.

New questions surfaced yesterday about whether the White House incorrectly inflated Brown's past work experience when he took over the agency.

The official White House announcement of Brown's nomination to head FEMA in January 2003 lists his previous experience as "the Executive Director of the Independent Electrical Contractors," a trade group.

But two officials of the group this week said that Brown never was the head of the national group but did serve as the executive director of a regional chapter - for less than six weeks.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Newsday contributed to this article.

To get help

Hurricane victims seeking federal aid and information may contact:

* 1-800-621-FEMA or www.FEMA.gov.

* www.govbenefits.gov.

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