In the days since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. 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 senior FEMA officials appointed under President Bush whose backgrounds showed few qualifications in disaster relief.
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 Thursday.
“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,” Cheney said 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.”
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 A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), the ranking minority member of the Committee on Government Reform.
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 who has testified before Congress on FEMA’s role in the Department of Homeland Security, said that for 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 Joe Allbaugh, an old friend and the agency’s first director under Bush. Before FEMA, Brown had worked for nearly a decade at the International Arabian Horse Assn. His responsibilities included supervising horse show judges.
Allbaugh -- a longtime aide to Bush who had managed his 2000 campaign -- resigned as FEMA director in 2003 and opened a consulting firm that helped companies win contracts in Iraq. Brown, who had risen to become Allbaugh’s top deputy, took charge.
Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a strong critic of Brown’s even before Katrina, wants him removed.
“When you’re dealing with responding to a natural disaster, it’s hard to do your job when you have no experience or background,” said Lale Mamaux, Wexler’s spokeswoman.
Brown is not the only official who came to the agency with scant disaster management background. His 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 his resume on FEMA’s website.
Rhode later 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 in 2003, 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.
Daniel Craig, director of FEMA’s Recovery Division since October 2003, “is responsible for planning and executing the federal government’s recovery efforts following major disasters,” according to the FEMA website.
Before coming to FEMA -- he became a regional director based in Boston in 2001 -- he worked for the Eastern Regional Office of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he “was responsible for Chamber-related legislative, political, and media initiatives in New England and the Atlantic coast,” the website says. Craig previously worked as a lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Assn., and before that as a campaign advisor, political fundraiser and research analyst.
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 Bush.
Altshuler was a minor donor to the GOP in 2004, giving $250 to the Bush campaign and another $250 to the Republican National Committee. His father, Geoffrey, has donated $750 to Rep. Ernest J. Istook (R-Okla.) and in 2002 hosted a fundraiser for Oklahoma Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe at his home, according to campaign records and Inhofe’s website.
Scott R. Morris, who held Altshuler’s job until May and now is a FEMA official in Florida, had been a GOP activist as far back as the 1996 presidential campaign of former Sen. Bob Dole, when he handled grass-roots activities and media strategies.
He later served as “a media strategist for the George W. Bush for President primary campaign and the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign,” according to his resume. Morris donated $2,250 to Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.
Morris’ private sector career includes a stint as “marketing director for the world’s leading provider of e-business applications software in California,” his resume states.
Natalie Rule, a FEMA spokeswoman, said Brown had received “on-the-job training” in dealing with more than 200 presidentially declared disasters since coming to the agency. Brown gained important background as assistant city manager for Edmond, Okla., and as chairman of the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, where he handled issues such as contingency planning and police negotiations, Rule said.
Rule said other top FEMA appointees whose qualifications have been challenged also brought skills to the table. For example, both Rhode and Altshuler had logistics backgrounds from their work on Bush’s advance team.
In June 2004, Local 4060 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents FEMA workers, wrote to members of Congress to warn about alleged cronyism at the agency. The letter said the practice initially “took place mainly at the senior levels of FEMA, but it has now entered into the mid-level and working-level” of FEMA.
“The ability of FEMA to manage emergencies and disasters is being seriously eroded,” the letter said.