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Wednesday, September 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ousted FEMA chief points finger, gets hand slapped

WASHINGTON — A combative Michael Brown blamed the Louisiana governor, the New Orleans mayor and the Bush White House that appointed him for the dismal response to Hurricane Katrina in congressional testimony yesterday.

The ousted emergency-management director's attempt to shift blame was met with derision from Republicans and Democrats alike on the Republican-controlled special House panel investigating the federal, state and local response to the hurricane.

"I'm happy you left," Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., told Brown. "That kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren't capable of doing that job."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had called for a boycott of the hearing, calling it a "sham" and a "photo opportunity."

But, as Brown — and the two Democrats who showed up anyway — can attest, concerns about a whitewash proved unjustified.

Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., offered Brown no help, giving members unlimited time to grill the witness and adding his own barbs.

When Brown argued that the White House "was fully engaged ... behind the scenes," Davis interjected: "They had to be behind the scenes, because I think we didn't see anything out front."

Brown, roundly criticized for his command of facts over the past month, did not help his case yesterday. He did not know how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spent on communications, guessing, "a boatload of money." He had to ask members of his entourage how many MREs were in a trailer load. "I don't have a clue how many [people] were truly in the Superdome," he volunteered at one point. Asked whether he is still a federal employee, Brown said: "You know, I don't know." (He is, until Oct. 10.)

At several points, he turned red and slapped the table in front of him.

"So I guess you want me to be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans," Brown said.

Shays shot back: "What I wanted you to do is do your job and coordinate."

Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., had to repeat a question because Brown was reading his BlackBerry. Shays had to repeat one because Brown was engrossed in his notes.

Brown pointedly noted several times that the federal government is not "a first responder" to such disasters and brushed aside a suggestion that the government assist with gasoline supplies for mass evacuations.

At one point, he volunteered that FEMA should end its current practice of providing ice for disaster evacuees — "I think it's wrong for the federal government to be in the ice business, providing ice so I can keep my beer and Diet Coke cool" — provoking a furious lecture from Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., on the life-threatening effects of unrelieved heat on the elderly and infirm.

"You can try to throw as much as you can on the backs of Louisianans, but I'm a witness as to what happened in Mississippi. You folks fell on your face," said Taylor, who lost his home to the hurricane. "You get an F-minus in my book."

Over more than six hours of tense testimony, Brown strongly defended his agency and himself against what he called "false, defamatory statements" spread by the news media about the agency's capabilities after the hurricane.

But he also spread responsibility widely to a White House that Brown said was fully apprised before Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall, to a Department of Homeland Security whose leaders cut money and staff for three years as they pursued the "emaciation of FEMA," and to a military he said was slow to react.

Brown admitted FEMA's ability to move life-sustaining supplies was flawed and "easily overwhelmed" by Katrina's scale. He said emergency communications broke down because the country made little "real progress" in learning from the 2001 terrorist attacks and warned that if U.S. authorities remained focused on preparing for terrorism instead of natural disasters, "then we're going to fail."

Brown said he is "happy to be a scapegoat ... if it means that the FEMA that I knew when I came here is going to be able to be reborn and we're going to be able to get it back to where it was" when he joined the agency in 2001.

Brown, 50, took responsibility for two mistakes. He said he should have set up regular media briefings instead of conducting numerous television interviews. He added: "I very strongly, personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor [Kathleen] Blanco and Mayor [Ray] Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together."

He said his "biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday [two days before the storm roared ashore from the Gulf of Mexico] that Louisiana was dysfunctional."

In Baton Rouge, La., Blanco spokeswoman Denise Bottcher said, "Mike Brown wasn't engaged then, and he surely isn't now. He should have been watching CNN instead of the Disney Channel."

Nagin spokeswoman Sally Forman said, "The governor and the mayor were totally on the same page."

The testimony of President Bush's ousted disaster-management director came against a backdrop of partisan fighting over the administration's handling of Katrina.

Except for Taylor and Jefferson, Democrats boycotted the panel, which Pelosi had called a partisan whitewash. Democrats said they will seek a floor vote on forming an independent investigation akin to the one that explored the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Brown, a lawyer and former commissioner of an Arabian horse association, became the focal point of anger after the storm, which killed more than 1,000 people and caused more than $100 billion damage.

Bush initially stood by Brown, saying he was "doing a heck of a job," but eventually said the hurricane response was inadequate. Brown was recalled to Washington Sept. 9. He resigned three days later.

Critics have said Brown's political ties to the White House and lack of qualifications symbolized an inept and inattentive administration.

Yesterday, Brown took his turn defending himself, flanked by FEMA's counsel and his personal lawyer.

"The way that FEMA works with state and local officials is well-established, and it's worked well," said Brown, who remains on the FEMA payroll until Oct. 10 at $148,000 a year as a consultant on a Katrina review. "Unfortunately, this is the approach that FEMA had great difficulty in getting established within Louisiana."

Brown said he communicated several times with the White House, including Bush, chief of staff Andrew Card and his deputy, Joe Hagin, starting two days before the storm.

But Brown said that over three years, FEMA's operating funds were cut 14.5 percent by the Homeland Security Department and that he probably should have resigned in protest.

He described FEMA as a politically powerless arm of Homeland Security, which he said had siphoned more than $77 million from his agency over the past three years.

He acknowledged he should have asked the president to push state and city officials to call an evacuation and perhaps federalize the National Guard earlier.

In Miami, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Brown "speaks for himself and he's entitled to his point of view and I don't have anything to add."

Brown struck a conciliatory tone with Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who chastised him for not seeking fiscal or oversight help from Congress before the storm.

"I don't know how you can sleep at night," Granger said. "You lost the battle."

Brown responded: "I probably should have just resigned my post earlier and gone public with some of these things, because I have a great admiration for the men and women of FEMA and what they do, and they don't deserve what they've been getting."

Also

Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner disclosed yesterday that he is stepping down after four tumultuous years as head of a key anti-terrorism agency.

Bonner, 63, is considering a return to private law practice in Los Angeles. His departure is expected to be announced today by the Bush administration

A former federal judge, prosecutor and DEA chief, Bonner took over an agency focused on financial crimes and smuggling and plunged into a new mission: preventing terrorists and their weapons from entering the U.S. mainland.

Material from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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