FEMA chief on hot seat for federal response
WASHINGTON – From failed Republican congressional candidate to ousted “czar” of an Arabian horse association, there was little in Michael D. Brown’s background to prepare him for the fury of Hurricane Katrina.
But as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brown now faces furious criticism of the federal response to the disaster that wiped out New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. He provoked some of it himself when he conceded that FEMA didn’t know that thousands of refugees were trapped at New Orleans’ convention center without food or water until officials heard it on the news.
“He’s done a hell of a job, because I’m not aware of any Arabian horses being killed in this storm,” said Kate Hale, former Miami-Dade emergency management chief. “The world that this man operated in and the focus of this work does not in any way translate to this. He does not have the experience.”
Brown ran for Congress in 1988 and won 27 percent of the vote against Democratic incumbent Glenn English. He spent the 1990s as judges and stewards commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. His job was to ensure that horse-show judges followed the rules and to investigate allegations against those suspected of cheating.
“I wouldn’t have regarded his position in the horse industry as a platform to where he is now,” said Tom Connelly, a former association president.
Brown’s ticket to FEMA was Joe Allbaugh, President Bush’s 2000 campaign manager and an old friend of Brown’s in Oklahoma. When Bush ran for president in 2000, Brown was ending a rocky tenure at the horse association.
Brown told several association officials that if Bush were elected, he’d be in line for a good job. When Allbaugh, who managed Bush’s campaign, took over FEMA in 2001, he took Brown with him as general counsel.
“He’s known Joe Allbaugh for quite some time,” said Andrew Lester, an Oklahoma lawyer who’s been a friend of Brown’s for more than 20 years. “I think they know each other from school days. I think they did some debate type of things against each other, and worked on some Republican politics together.”
Brown practiced law in Enid, Okla., a city of about 45,000, during the 1980s and was counsel to a group of businesses run by a well-known Enid family. Before that, he worked for the city of Edmond, Okla., and was an aide in the state Legislature.
From 1991 until 2000, Brown earned about $100,000 a year as the chief rules enforcer of the Arabian horse association.
He was known as “The Czar” for the breadth of his power and the enthusiasm with which he wielded it, said Mary Anne Grimmell, a former association president.
The suspensions Brown delivered to those suspected of cheating resulted in several lawsuits. Although the association won the suits, they were expensive to defend, and Brown became a controversial figure.
“It was positive controversy,” Connelly said. “It got word out that we were serious about enforcing our rules.”
But he said Brown could be “abrasive.” Others were less charitable.
“He just wouldn’t follow instruction,” said Bill Pennington, another former association president. “Mike was bullheaded and he was gonna do it his way. Period.”
At FEMA, Brown rose from general counsel to deputy director within a year. Bush named him to succeed Allbaugh in February 2003. With FEMA now part of the Department of Homeland Security, Brown’s title is undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response.
Brown’s old friend Lester said the progression from horse shows to hurricanes was natural.
“A lot of what he had to do was stand in the breach in difficult, controversial situations,” Lester said. “Which I think would well prepare him for his work at FEMA.”
Despite the withering criticism and a promised congressional investigation of FEMA’s performance, Brown still has the support of his most important constituent.
In Mobile, Ala., on Friday, Bush said the response to Katrina was unsatisfactory. But he had nothing but praise for his FEMA director. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” the president said.