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A Real News Exclusive
Unholy Trinity: Katrina, Allbaugh and Brown
(Full Text Version)
Release Date: Feb. 6, 2006

Copyright © 2006, Russ Baker/Real News Project, All Rights Reserved
By Russ Baker

Russ Baker, founder of the Real News Project and author of this article, is a longtime, award-winning investigative journalist and essayist. His work has appeared in many of the world’s finest news outlets. The Real News Project is a new organization dedicated to producing groundbreaking investigative reporting on the big stories of our time.

Jim Watson/Getty Images
FEMA Director Michael Brown explains Katrina situation to President George W. Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

Days after Louisiana’s governor declared a state of emergency and the National Hurricane Center warned the White House that Hurricane Katrina could top the New Orleans levee system, the only FEMA official actually in New Orleans itself— Marty J. Bahamonde —was not even supposed to be there. He had been sent in advance of the storm and had been ordered to leave as it bore down, but could not because of the clogged roads. Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, was known to have made it to Baton Rouge but seemed out of reach.

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, with tens of thousands trapped in the Superdome and looting out of control in the parts of the city still above water,  Bahamonde e-mailed Brown directly:  ''I know you know, the situation is past critical…Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water.''' The response, when it came several hours later, was from a Brown aide, and did not address the warnings, but noted Brown’s desire to appear on a television program that evening. It included this key caveat:  ''It is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner.''

A week later, Brown would be replaced as on-site manager of the disaster. Blamed for his role in one of the largest domestic debacles in American history, Brown was still thinking of his own comfort: "I'm going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife, and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night's sleep," he told AP. In the midst of America’s worst natural (and manmade) disaster, it became clear that Brown was indeed lost in Margaritaville.

What has grown all too apparent in the months since Katrina is that much of the Bush-appointed federal leadership is every bit as inept and unqualified as Brown. Each new crisis seems to expose still more cronyism and patronage at the very top of the country’s leading agencies. The Medicare administrator Thomas Scully came from a job with the hospital association, stayed just long enough to pass the controversial and messy if business-friendly Medicare drug benefit, then left to become a drug industry lobbyist. Other stories are emerging at departments ranging from the Small Business Administration to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. And the head of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy had no prior experience in government contracting; he has since been arrested in connection with the sprawling corruption investigation surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

From Harriet Miers (a Supreme Court nominee with no judicial experience) to Julie Myers (a virtual government neophyte named to head the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency), Bush has set aside principles of sound governance to reward loyal operatives and shore up personal and party alliances.  Sometimes, his tactics are transparent. Miers was a longtime legal adviser and trouble-shooter to Bush; and Myers, the niece of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had at the time of her nomination recently married the chief of staff of her boss-to-be, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff.

We still do not know the true extent to which the government has been filled with Michael Browns. This is in part because of the media. At one time, major news organizations had a reporter assigned to each large federal bureaucracy, making it harder to sail these appointments through and then hide the incompetence and malfeasance. Now only a disaster can shine the spotlight.

But Michael Brown will forever remain the poster child for federal incompetence. And the central question has yet to be answered: who was Michael Brown, and how did he end up at the helm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency? Indeed, how did he and his predecessor and mentor, Bush political operative Joe Allbaugh, manage to turn FEMA, a once proud and effective agency, into a national laughingstock?  

On any level, it makes absolutely no sense that Michael Brown should have been holding any major government post. Prior to joining FEMA, his professional pinnacle had been to serve as an inspector of Arabian Horse judges; his highest governmental job had been an assistant to a city manager in a small Oklahoma city decades ago.

"Brownie" had done no known political work for George W. Bush. He was not an industry figure. He was not even among the many longtime allies of the Bush family. The only answer the public has ever gotten in the aftermath of Katrina as to why Michael Brown headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency was a peculiar and highly dissatisfying one: Joe Allbaugh wanted him there. Allbaugh is the brash and powerful but little-known Bush confidant who preceded Brown as FEMA director. When Allbaugh came to Washington, he brought Brown with him and rapidly promoted him until Brown was positioned to take over the agency.

But why Michael Brown? Why, out of all the people Allbaugh had met over three decades as a GOP operative, did he place such confidence in a failed lawyer whose last job was a troubled tenure with an obscure association of show horse owners?
When pressed, the taciturn Allbaugh tersely replied that Brown was a lifelong friend in whom he had confidence. To this moment, that has remained the official, indeed only, explanation of how and why Michael Brown was running FEMA when Hurricane Katrina struck.

But a Real News Project investigation, encompassing scores of interviews and hundreds of documents, has uncovered another reality. It begins with this astonishing fact: nearly all of Joe Allbaugh's friends and acquaintances say they had never heard of Michael Brown, never met him, never even seen the two men in each other's presence. To them, Michael Brown is a complete stranger. Allbaugh's explanation of why he chose Brown as his heir apparent at FEMA baffles one and all.

The truth, RealNews has learned, is that the relationship between the two is a decades-long hidden partnership designed to advance both men's business and personal interests. By all appearances, that relationship encompassed Allbaugh's decision to ask Bush to let him run FEMA, and then his decision to turn the place over to Brown so he could profit from their ties.

Indeed, as soon as Allbaugh left the agency, he began cashing in. Today, both Allbaugh and Brown are consultants, making money off their connections at FEMA and in the administration—tattered and tarnished though their legacies may be. And now FEMA is staffed by others put into position by the two men and run by David Paulison, best known for having advised Americans to stock up on duct tape as protection against future terrorist attacks.

Is this really just about incompetence as a byproduct of a deeply ideological presidency? Or has a debilitating "culture of corruption" become deeply embedded in agencies like FEMA on which we literally rely for our lives? And just how far into the Bush White House does this dismaying story reach?

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