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Political Connection Led Chief to FEMA

Times Staff Writers

The leader of the U.S. government’s much-criticized handling of hurricane relief efforts in the Gulf Coast came to Washington in 2001 with scant background in dealing with natural disasters. But he had an important connection: His new boss was an old friend who had managed George W. Bush’s successful campaign for the White House.

Michael D. Brown left his job in Colorado supervising horse-show judges to work for Bush’s longtime political aide, Joe Allbaugh, who was heading the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the new administration.

Brown had been a lawyer active in Republican politics whose most relevant emergencyresponse experience was a stint supervising police and fire departments as assistant city manager in an Oklahoma City suburb.

But within two years, he rose from FEMA’s general counsel to deputy director and, when Allbaugh left, he moved to the agency’s top spot.

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Now powerful members of Congress are joining some local officials in criticizing the pace of FEMA’s response after Hurricane Katrina. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) plans hearings on the agency’s performance since the hurricane.

Brown, 50, has become the focus of long-simmering concerns about FEMA’s ability to cope with natural disasters after the Bush administration folded it into the Department of Homeland Security, which emphasizes protection against terrorism.

Under President Clinton, the FEMA director had been a member of the Cabinet, with more access to the president.

“FEMA, now a shell of what it once was, continues to be overwhelmed by the task at hand,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said in a statement Saturday.

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She has been asking President Bush to appoint a Cabinet-level official to oversee Gulf Coast relief and recovery efforts.

Brown has asked for patience.

But he didn’t help his case with his candid confessions on national television Thursday that his agency had not known about the throngs marooned at New Orleans’ convention center, even though pictures were broadcast over and over.

“That shows how difficult communications are,” he told CNN news anchor Paula Zahn.

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When ABC’s Ted Koppel asked Brown on Thursday about the difference between his earlier estimate of 5,000 people at the convention center and the estimate by the New Orleans mayor of 15,000 to 25,000 people, Brown replied that he had sent the Army general on the ground to find out.

The mayor’s higher count, he told Koppel, had been correct.

A longtime friend, Oklahoma lawyer Andrew Lester, took issue Saturday with critics who say Brown does not have the experience to take on the huge task of repairing a submerged and battered city, along with miles of devastated coastal towns.

“He has been [at FEMA] four or five years,” Lester said.

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Brown has led Homeland Security’s response to “more than 164 presidentially declared disasters and emergencies,” according to the FEMA website. These included the breakup of the Columbia space shuttle and the California wildfires in 2003, and four hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004.

Bush and Brown’s immediate boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, have expressed their confidence in FEMA’s leader.

Brown earned a bachelor’s degree from Central State University in Oklahoma and a law degree from Oklahoma State University. While in law school, he was appointed staff director of the Oklahoma Legislature’s finance committee.

He practiced law in Oklahoma and Colorado and was an adjunct professor of law for the Oklahoma City University.

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After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Brown served on a White House committee that coordinated the federal response.

Afterward, Bush asked him to head a working group to examine that response.

In January 2003, Bush nominated Brown to be the first undersecretary of emergency preparedness and response in the new Homeland Security Department.

Besides coordinating response to catastrophes, he is charged with overseeing the National Flood Insurance Program and initiating projects that can be put in place ahead of time to minimize disaster.

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Before joining FEMA, he spent about 10 years as commissioner of judges for the International Arabian Horse Assn., a job not mentioned in the FEMA biography.

When Brown started working for the group in 1991, he was not “a horse guy,” said Tom Connelly, who was on the board of directors when Brown was hired and was president when Brown left.

“Some people thought we made a mistake in not hiring a horse guy,” Connelly added.

Connelly said he thought Brown “did a marvelous job” training some 300 horse-show judges and investigating complaints about them.

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But he also allows that “there were some who thought Mike is the devil himself.”

Brown was in charge of disciplining the judges at a time when some exhibitors were surgically altering their horses or administering drugs to them, Connelly said.

In this intensely competitive atmosphere, several judges who were sanctioned by the group “had big followings in our industry,” Connelly said.

Some sued Brown and the association. The International Arabian Horse Assn. won or settled all of the cases, Connelly said.

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“There were many personal attacks, and Mike was in the cross-hairs of those attacks,” Connelly said. “It got to him.”

Several times, Connelly said, Brown confided to him that he had a connection in Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. He had been friends for more than 20 years with Allbaugh, one of Bush’s trusted aides. Allbaugh was part of the “Iron Triangle” -- along with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes -- that dated back to Bush’s tenure as Texas governor.

Both Allbaugh and Brown were Oklahoma natives involved in the state’s Republican politics. Brown lost a congressional bid in 1988.

Brown hoped to go to Washington after Bush won the White House, according to Connelly. “What he had in mind was something in the government, but he never mentioned FEMA,” Connelly said.

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Brown’s departure from the horse association was “a mutual thing,” Connelly said. He added: “I can’t tell you that there weren’t some people who were happy he was going, because they were not happy with what he did.”

Times staff writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Michael D. Brown

A quick look at the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency :

Age: 50; born Nov. 11, 1954, in Guymon, Okla.

Education: B.A., Central State University, Oklahoma, 1978; J.D., Oklahoma City University School of Law, 1981.

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Career: 2003-present, undersecretary of emergency preparedness and response (head of FEMA); 2002-03, deputy director, FEMA; 2001, general counsel, FEMA; 1987-2001, attorney, private practice in Oklahoma and Colorado; 1982-87, associate, Long, Ford, Lester & Brown.

Family: Wife, Tamara; two children.

Quote: “In this catastrophic event, everything that we had pre-positioned and ready to go became overwhelmed immediately after the storm.” -- Brown on Hurricane Katrina.

Source: Associated Press

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Los Angeles Times


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