Obama May Call On Witt to Shape Up FEMA

James Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser in Bill Clinton's White House, is in line to be deputy secretary in Hillary Clinton's State Department.
James Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser in Bill Clinton's White House, is in line to be deputy secretary in Hillary Clinton's State Department. (By Thierry Charlier -- Associated Press)
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By Al Kamen
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, a tragicomic disaster since Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 -- and even before that -- looks to be getting a facelift under the Obama administration, sources tell us.

First off, the likely plan is to break off the agency from the Department of Homeland Security, a move that by itself would help restore the pride that folks at FEMA felt when it was an independent agency.

Second, there's increasing talk that former director James Lee Witt, who took over the then-troubled agency at the start of the Clinton administration and left it eight years later with a much-enhanced reputation, is coming back from retirement to run FEMA for six months to a year, to whip it into shape.

After that, so the plan goes, his possible deputy administrator, Mark Merritt, who worked with Witt at James Lee Witt Associates -- where they made a fortune on disasters -- would take over the top job at FEMA.

Witt's no stranger to this cleanup role, lest we forget what he inherited when he took the FEMA reins in 1993. FEMA was so badly ridiculed for botching relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that outraged senators were threatening to zero out its budget. Then-Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) opined that the agency "could screw up a two-car parade."

Witt, however, is likely to be grilled about his work on Katrina relief. Witt and Merritt began their work in the days after the hurricane, when Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) hired their disaster recovery firm with an open-ended no-bid contract.

An NBC News investigation of Louisiana records found that James Lee Witt Associates was paid more than $40 million for its work. Merritt, who had been the firm's top manager in Louisiana, tallied $506,000 in billable hours over the 10-month span from September 2005 through June 2006, NBC News found in its July 2007 report.

The firm allegedly billed the state double what it actually paid its subcontractors, the report said. For instance, the firm subcontracted an Indiana company to manage recovery grants. That company's workers were paid $19 to $20 an hour, but the company billed Witt Associates $37.50 an hour, and Witt Associates billed the state $75 an hour, according to the NBC report.

On the other hand, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is said to have been most pleased with their work and intends to keep them on.

Maybe they'll have a news conference with real reporters?

Who's the USDA Choice?

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack said yesterday that he is not a candidate for agriculture secretary, telling the Des Moines Register that he had never been contacted by aides to President-elect Barack Obama about an administration position.

Vilsack, a Democrat who abandoned his own bid for the White House in 2007 and endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries, later campaigned for Obama in Midwestern battleground states. He has deep contacts in the farming community and published editorials this fall about agriculture and renewable-energy policy, leading many to believe he was a top contender to run the Agriculture Department.

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