Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Change Is Coming to FEMA


by: Al Kamen, The Washington Post

FEMA is expected to break off of Homeland Security under Obama. (Photo: Evan Vucci / AP)

The Federal Emergency Management Administration, a tragicomic disaster since Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 - and even before then - looks to be getting a facelift under the Obama administration, sources tell us.

First off, the likely plan is to break off the agency from the Department of Homeland Security, a move that would in itself help restore the pride FEMA folks felt when it was an independent agency.

Second, there's increasing talk that former director James Lee Witt, who took over the then-troubled agency at the start of the Clinton administration and left it eight years later with a much enhanced reputation for getting things done, is coming back in from retirement to run FEMA for maybe six months to a year and whip it into shape.

After that, so the plan goes, his possible deputy administrator, Mark Merritt, who worked with Witt at James Lee Witt Associates - where they made a fortune on disasters - would take over the top job at FEMA.

Witt's no stranger to this clean-up role, lest we forget what he inherited when he took the FEMA reins back in 1993. FEMA was so badly ridiculed for botching relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that outraged senators were threatening to zero out its budget and former senator Ernest Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) opined "they could screw up a two-car parade."

Witt, who was Clinton's state emergency management chief in Arkansas, was widely credited with reorganizing and re-energizing the agency.

However, Witt is likely to be grilled about his work on Katrina relief. Witt and Merritt began their work in the days after the hurricane, when Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco hired their disaster recovery firm in an open-ended, no-bid contract.

An NBC News investigation of Louisiana state records found that James Lee Witt Associates was paid more than $40 million for its recovery work. Merritt, who had been the firm's top manager in Louisiana, tallied $506,000 in billable hours over the 10-month span from September 2005 through June 2006, NBC News found in its July 2007 report.

Witt Associates allegedly billed the state double what it actually paid its subcontractors, the report said. For instance, the firm subcontracted an Indiana company to manage recovery grants. That company's workers were paid $19 to $20 an hour, but they billed Witt Associates $37.50 an hour, and Witt Associates billed the state $75 an hour, according to the NBC News report.

On the other hand, Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is reported to have been most pleased the with firm's work there and has said he intended to keep them on.

Maybe they'll have a press conference with real reporters?


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