Monday, February 06, 2006
When George W. Bush came to Washington, he appointed his close aide and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, seen with Bush at left, to run FEMA. Allbaugh brought in as his first hire a little-known fellow Oklahoman named Michael Brown. He promoted Brown quickly to be his top assistant, then left the agency, making Brown the director.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf States, Brown's inexperience and lack of qualifications quickly became apparent to the world. Reporters discovered that Brown had substantially exaggerated his extremely modest accomplishments. Bush initially expressed his support for the embattled Brown, famously declaring, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." But with criticism reaching fever pitch, the president -- famed for almost never jettisoning subordinates -- took the atypical step of forcing Brown out.
Little more was heard about Brown, or how such an inappropriate choice could have ended up running an agency responsible for protecting the American public from natural and manmade disaster, including the aftermath of terrorist attacks.
But a RealNews investigation, encompassing scores of interviews and hundreds of documents, has unearthed a stunning back story that shines a bright light on the mysterious Bush-Allbaugh-Brown relationship.
When Allbaugh brought Brown to Washington, he presented him as a lifelong associate of high character and substantial credentials. "I hired him solely on his ability as a strong ethics attorney," Allbaugh said in an official FEMA press release at the time. "He is very experienced, knowledgeable, and professional and will be a great asset to the agency and to myself."
The truth, RealNews has learned, is that the relationship between the two rests on a decades-long hidden partnership designed to advance both men's business and personal interests. By all appearances, that relationship drove Allbaugh's decision to ask Bush to let him run FEMA, and his decision to turn the place over to Brown so he could profit from their ties.
Among the key revelations:
-Both Brown and Allbaugh were accused in the past of fiduciary malfeasance. Before coming to Washington, both were known to associates and creditors not as rising stars but as ethically-challenged, and frequently failed, entrepreneurs.
-In one business venture, Allbaugh worked for Brown, as a lobbyist. In another, Allbaugh partnered with Browns brother-in-law and sister-in-law. That business involved mysterious, large amounts of cash that upset Allbaugh's then-wife, and contributed to their divorce. One Allbaugh business partner would later be convicted of mail and wire fraud and serve time in a federal prison.
-Allbaugh and his second wife declared bankruptcy, unloading nearly $300,000 in debt, but failed to report this -- as he was required to do -- to the Senate on disclosure forms during his confirmation process. Legal experts say this may constitute a felony.
-Brown, who was brought into FEMA initially by Allbaugh to run the legal operation, has a history as a failed low-level lawyer, replete with discontented clients, unhappy employers and damaging lawsuits.
-The hard-luck Brown has received multiple assists from well-connected Republicans. His long-time lawyer, who has helped him through scrape after scrape, is a friend of Justice Clarence Thomas and former regional director of the influential and secretive Federalist Society.
-Brown and Allbaugh had apparently agreed on Brown's role in the Bush administration well in advance. For six months prior to Bush's election in 2000, Brown was telling incredulous associates that he expected to land a high position in Washington.
-At FEMA, Allbaugh launched a purge, forcing out many of the most experienced officials. Allbaugh and Brown also abandoned a recent agency tradition of hiring experienced professionals and filled high FEMA positions with political operatives lacking familiarity with emergency disaster management.
-Under Brown, during the 2004 presidential election, FEMA handed out tens of millions of dollars in disaster aid in parts of the politically crucial Florida that had experienced little damage.
-Allbaugh has had extremely close ties with Vice President Cheney -- including vetting Cheney for the vice presidency, buying his house, serving on Cheney's secretive energy task force, and then becoming a consultant to Cheney's former company, Halliburton.
-Under Allbaugh and Brown, FEMA changed the way in which the agency handled contracts, awarding them to numerous firms with political connections but little in the way of corporate infrastructure to handle the work. Some of these recipients were merely Enron-style shell corporations that subcontracted all the work to others, keeping a sizable share of the profits.
-When Allbaugh left FEMA, he immediately began setting up a network of lobbying interests to benefit from his connections. His clients were selected by FEMA under Brown, and by other agencies, for major contracts.
-FEMA shifted abruptly in 2003 from dealing directly on a non-exclusive basis with large bottled water suppliers, to issuing a sole-source contract to a tiny, politically connected firm that had to turn to other companies to supply water. This arrangement is blamed for substantial problems with deliveries of water following Hurricane Katrina.
Rest of the Real News Project Executive Summary. The entire 9,000 word expose here.
Dave Haigler, Abilene, Texas
lawfirm webpage: www.haigler.info
political blog: http://demlog.blogspot.com
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