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Hurricane Katrina

'Average' past trails troubled FEMA chief

Published September 10, 2005

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WASHINGTON - In 2002, a pair of FBI agents showed up at a small, well-known law firm near Oklahoma City, asking questions about Mike Brown, a former employee being considered for a job at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There, Stephen Jones, a lawyer best known for defending bomber Timothy McVeigh, recalled how he hired Brown fresh from law school two decades earlier. He'd been impressed by Brown's stint on a nearby city council.

But just a few years later, Jones and the other four partners decided to split the firm. To minimize job loss, they unanimously agreed to keep 35 of their 37 employees. Brown was not one of them.

"He did not develop the way we wanted," Jones said this week. "He was average. Maybe that's the best way to put it."

Brown was pleasant enough, if a bit opportunistic, Jones said, but he did not put enough time and energy into his job. "He would have been better suited to be a small city or county lawyer," he said. Jones was surprised Brown was being considered for job at FEMA but figured it wasn't impossible he could have risen high enough in local and state government to be considered for a job directing FEMA operations in Oklahoma.

The agents quickly corrected him. This was a national post in Washington, deputy director of FEMA, the arm of the federal government that prepares for and responds to disasters around the United States.

Jones looked at the agents, "You're surely kidding?"

Today, Brown is the director of FEMA.

Until Friday, when he was ordered to return to Washington, D.C., from his command post in Baton Rouge, La., he had been leading the recovery effort for the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history and, his critics say, doing a very bad job of it.

In Washington, members of Congress are calling for him to be fired. In Louisiana, officials have called him an idiot, incompetent and worse.

After the catastrophe, Brown shocked the nation by first denying problems, then appearing to blame local and state officials and later admitting he was unaware 20,000 evacuees were stranded at the New Orleans convention center 24 hours after it was on the news.

At first, President Bush stood by him: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Bush has refused to praise him again. Asked if he would fire anyone, Bush replied, "I'm going to find out over time what went right and what went wrong."

Brown's friends say the 50-year-old churchgoer and avid hiker remains his same old chipper self, though at times he has sounded defensive.

"People want to lash out at me, lash out at FEMA," he told reporters. "I think that's fine. Just lash out, because my job is to continue to save lives."

How much longer it will be his job is in question.

"The more one learns about him," Republican commentator William Kristol said on Fox News, "one is surprised that he's in that job in the first place."

Brown was raised in Guymon, a small city in the Oklahoma Panhandle, population 10,000, an upbringing he credits with giving him a Midwestern sensibility. In high school, he was student council president and band drum major. At 18, he married his high school sweetheart - the daughter of the local doctor who had delivered him at birth.

While attending law school, the even-keeled Brown worked various local and state government jobs.

Later, he practiced law, civil cases that generally did not take him into a courtroom. He dabbled in public office, serving on one city council and lost a race for mayor in another city.

His political ambition was exceeded only by his lack of success.

In 1988, 32-year-old Brown, an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, ran as a Republican for Congress against Glenn English - a long-serving Democratic representative in a generally Republican district. English raised more than four times as much money as Brown and took 73 percent of the vote.

Brown left Oklahoma for the first time in 1991, spending almost a decade in Colorado at a job that is not mentioned on his FEMA resume.

He was hired by the International Arabian Horse Association, for a newly created position inspecting judges at the group's 300 horse shows.

Mary Anne Grimmell, a former association president, said he was often quiet and kept to himself, appearing aloof to many, but was known as "The Czar" for his enthusiastic use of power.

Brown's decisions led to several lawsuits. Although none would go anywhere, the association, not accustomed to being sued, began to raise $1-million for a legal fund. Grimmell and former board member Karl Hart say Brown collected almost $50,000 but kept it for his own legal fees even though the association had planned to defend him as well.

Grimmell and Hart say Brown was asked to leave after that incident. But others, including former association official Lorry Wagner and Brown's longtime friend and attorney Andrew Lester, say he was ready to leave after almost 10 years.

Brown, who donated $1,000 to Bush's campaign, had frequently told colleagues that he would land a job in Bush's administration if the then-Texas governor won the White House in 2000.

"He said for a couple years he was going to get a position in Washington," Hart said. "I was frankly shocked."

There was a simple explanation.

Brown's close college friend, Joe Allbaugh, had worked as Bush's chief of staff when he was governor and later managed his 2000 presidential campaign.

When Bush won the presidency, he appointed Allbaugh FEMA director. And Allbaugh took Brown to Washington as the agency's general counsel.

Brown quickly moved up to FEMA deputy director, and when Allbaugh stepped down, Brown was named the nation's disaster chief.

It wasn't a surprise.

Brown had emerged as a leading candidate after making a name for himself as FEMA's chief operating officer after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats seemed bothered by his lack of an emergency background at the 2002 Senate confirmation hearings.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who led the hearings, called Brown's time as an assistant city manager in Edmond a "particularly useful experience" because he had responsibility for local emergency services. But Edmond officials reached this week say he was an assistant to the city manager and did not supervise employees.

Brown, who coordinates 14 federal agencies with state and local officials, has overseen more than 150 disasters, including wildfires in California, tornadoes in the Midwest and hurricanes in Florida.

"So, yes," he said to reporters after Katrina hit, "I've been through a few disasters in my life."

Brown was a familiar sight last year in Florida, handing out ice while in muddy work boots and a navy Windbreaker emblazoned in gold with the letters FEMA. He was initially praised for his hurricane work but was criticized after news reports revealed FEMA paid $31-million in bogus claims.

Friends say he works morning until night, sometimes traveling around the nation to warn of potential disasters, sometimes in his Washington office where his collection of antique maps adorn his walls.

Charlie Bernhardt of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 4,000 FEMA employees, calls Brown a "nice guy" but says he is in "way over his head."

Brown has ignited a national debate about whether the nation's disaster chief should have emergency management experience.

Since it was created more than two decades ago by President Jimmy Carter, FEMA has usually been led by a political appointee and not a career emergency manager. That changed when President Bill Clinton revamped the agency and hired James Lee Witt, the former Arkansas emergency service chief.

But when Clinton left, so did Witt, and Bush replaced him with Allbaugh.

Jay Baker, a Florida State University professor who studies natural disasters, said an ideal FEMA chief should have emergency management and administrative experience. But sometimes, he said, it's impossible to judge a leader until after a disaster hits.

"You can't find out how good someone is until there's an emergency," he said. "Until there's a test."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.


AGE: 50; born Nov. 11, 1954, in Guymon, Okla.

EDUCATION: B.A., public administration/political science, Central State University, Oklahoma (now known as the University of Central Oklahoma), 1978; J.D., Oklahoma City University School of Law, 1981.

CAREER: 2003-present, director of FEMA; 2002-03, deputy director of FEMA; 2001, general counsel of FEMA; 1991-2001, commissioner of judges for the International Arabian Horse Association; 1987-1991, attorney, private practice in Oklahoma; 1982-87, associate, Long, Ford, Lester & Brown.

POLITICS: 2001, served on the President's Consequence Management Principal's Committee, which formulated federal domestic response after 9/11; 1988, lost race for seat in the U.S. House of Representatives; 1987, lost race for mayor of Enid, Okla.; 1982-88, chairman of the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority; 1981-1982, City Council member in Edmond, Okla.; 1980-82, Oklahoma Senate Finance Committee staff member; 1977-80, assistant to the Edmond city manager.

FAMILY: Wife, Tamara, a schoolteacher; two children, Jared and Amy; one grandchild.

Sources: FEMA, news clips

[Last modified September 10, 2005, 01:24:05]

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