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Bush increasingly faces accusations of cronyism

G. Robert Hillman Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – Michael Brown got his job through the good ol’ boy network – and he’s proud of it.

Now, Harriet Miers has been branded a crony by some opposing her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The two choices by President Bush are vastly different. Brown, long a friend of a Bush associate, was named director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, while Miers, the White House legal counsel who is part of the president’s inner circle, has been nominated for a lifetime seat on the nation’s highest court.

Nonetheless, critics have seized on both as examples of what they see as an administration increasingly rewarding friendship and loyalty over competence and qualifications in a wide range of government posts. And Brown’s high-profile resignation amid charges of poor management following Hurricane Katrina has offered plenty of running room for those eager to paint Miers as a crony.

“Picking a Bush crony from the inner workings of a right-wing White House to be the swing vote on the Supreme Court is almost like picking a political ally like Michael Brown to run FEMA,” said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla.

The White House rejects such charges, denying any notion of cronyism.

“The president nominates people based on their qualifications,” said spokeswoman Erin Healy, adding that the president wants people who can “get the job done and do it well.”

Still, cronyism charges have become another thorny issue for the president, who’s at record lows in public opinion polls, driven down by his administration’s handling of the hurricane, skyrocketing gasoline prices and growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.

“All presidents rely on friends, political cronies and political supporters,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

“This administration has done at least what the others have done in political appointments,” he added, “and may have been more efficient about doing it.”

In all, the president can make more than 4,000 political appointments, many of them requiring Senate confirmation. But lately, Brown, Miers and a handful of others are raising questions about the president’s choices and about the process itself.

Brown, in particular, has drawn attention to the president’s appointments after he appeared clueless while hurricane survivors in New Orleans pleaded for help.

Three years ago, when he was nominated to be deputy director of FEMA, he told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that he was honored that Joe Allbaugh, his friend of 25 years, “asked me to serve with him.”

Allbaugh was chief of staff when Bush was governor and managed his 2000 presidential campaign. He was FEMA director when he brought Brown on board. When he left to enter the lucrative consulting business, Brown moved up.

Bush called him “Brownie” when he praised him on Sept. 2 for doing a “heck of a job” with the hurricane. He resigned 10 days later.

Critics charged that the former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association was woefully inexperienced in disaster matters and never developed the savvy to handle the demands of such a catastrophic storm.

“Serious consequences result when unqualified cronies are appointed to federal public safety positions,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “It is literally a matter of life and death.”

Brown was confirmed as deputy FEMA director by a Senate voice vote after some kind words in the Governmental Affairs Committee by its Democratic chairman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. When he was promoted to director the next year, the White House didn’t send a nomination to the Senate because the new homeland security law didn’t specifically require it.

“How did Mike Brown get his job? The answer is: He was a friend of Joe Allbaugh,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. “Why didn’t he get a hearing when he was elevated to director? The answer is: The Senate doesn’t really care that much to give people second hearings when they’re elevated.”

Defending Brown’s appointment, Allbaugh said the fellow Oklahoman was his first hire, as FEMA general counsel, because he was a “very thorough, diligent” lawyer.

“It wasn’t because he was my friend,” Allbaugh said. “I was looking for a good attorney.”

In the case of the Supreme Court, Bush is promoting Miers as the best lawyer for the job. But some senators are not satisfied. The well-established Dallas lawyer has never been a judge. And her work at the White House is being protected by claims of executive privilege.

“The frustration is a lack of knowledge,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will consider her nomination.

On Friday, the president’s nominee to be deputy attorney general, former deputy White House counsel Timothy Flanigan, abruptly withdrew amid persistent questions about his role in developing administration interrogation policies in the war against terrorism and his dealings as a corporate attorney with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is under federal investigation

Some senators are also questioning the appointment of yet another lawyer – Julie Myers, 36, who barely meets the statutory requirement for five years of law enforcement and management experience to head the sprawling Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Her uncle is retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, whom Bush appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Both FEMA and ICE are in the new Department of Homeland Security, which also is seeking a new commissioner for Customs and Border Protection.

Democrats and other critics charge, too, that the Bush administration fosters a revolving-door policy where appointees return to the business world and become consultants and lobbyists who ply on their old government service. And there have been complaints that the administration has tried to politicize agencies.

David Safavian raised more than a few eyebrows when he was arrested on federal charges of lying and obstructing an investigation into his business dealings with Abramoff.

Safavian resigned Sept. 16 as the chief procurement policy officer for the Bureau of the Budget. He had come to the White House from the General Services Administration, where as chief of staff the FBI alleges he helped the lobbyist in his attempts to acquire GSA property in the Washington area.

His attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, said he will “vigorously contest” the charges and was well qualified for his procurement post, noting that he had been confirmed by the Senate.

His boss in the Bureau of the Budget was deputy director Clay Johnson, a Texas friend of the president’s since their college days at Yale and his first White House personnel director. Johnson, who also handled appointments for Bush when he was governor, declined through a spokesman to discuss Safavian, who worked for him or the presidential personnel process.

Bush’s second personnel director was another Texan, Dina Powell, who was confirmed last summer by the Senate as assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs.

Light, the NYU professor who’s studied presidential appointments, gives Johnson high marks as personnel director but suggested the pace and quality of Bush’s appointments is trailing off in his second term.

“They’ve been getting slower and slower, and the vacancy rates have been climbing,” Light said.

It’s become increasingly difficult to fill many top administration jobs, he added, because of demands that nominees disclose their finances and nearly all other details of their lives. Also, pay and benefits lag behind those in the private sector.

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