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Disasters, Recoveries and FEMA

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.

But Vilsack wrote in an e-mail Sunday to the Register that he is not a candidate for the position. So scratch that one.

Other contenders are said to be Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee; Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union; and John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is supporting Boyd's candidacy. "As a fourth-generation farmer, John Boyd understands the lending, energy, outreach, economical and technical assistance concerns of America's agricultural industry," Towns said.

Justice and the Deputy

Washington lawyer David W. Ogden, who is overseeing the Justice Department transition for Obama, has emerged as the top candidate to become the department's second in command, our colleague Carrie Johnson reports. Ogden ran the department's civil division during the Clinton administration and has experience with military issues, having worked as a deputy in the general counsel's office at the Defense Department.

He appears to be edging out Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan for the No. 2 job, a post that usually involves being the chief operating officer for the 108,000-person department.

Security Shakeout

With the top slots at the State Department and the National Security Council apparently taken by Hillary Clinton and Gen. James Jones, respectively, attention is turning to selections for the critical deputy posts at Foggy Bottom and the NSC.

James Steinberg, now head of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and, before that, deputy national security adviser in the Clinton White House, is the expected pick for the State Department post.

That would make Washington lawyer Tom Donilon, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the leading candidate for deputy national security adviser. Donilon, whose ties to incoming Vice President Joe Biden go way back, likely would ensure that the veep is well briefed on international matters.

If that's the way the dust settles, then it's increasingly likely that Susan Rice, who served on the National Security Council and was assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Clinton days, and has been a senior adviser to Obama, would be the pick for ambassador to the United Nations. The question is, would that be a Cabinet-rank post?

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

Jan. 20 Looks Safe

Conservative bloggers are furious that the MSM is ignoring the two petitions at the Supreme Court challenging Obama's election. But lawyers for Obama, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the Bush Justice Department aren't paying attention, either.

One of the petitions is nonpartisan, alleging that neither Obama nor McCain (nor, for that matter, Socialist Workers Party candidate Roger Calero) should have been listed on the New Jersey ballot because none of the three is a natural-born citizen. That petition says Obama would not be a natural-born citizen "even if it were proved he was born in Hawaii," because his father was born in Kenya.

The other, filed by Pennsylvania lawyer Philip J. Berg, offers the argument that Obama himself was born in Kenya. Berg and his supporters are not buying the copy of the Hawaiian birth certificate the Obama camp has offered up.

Justice David H. Souter has denied applications for injunctions in both cases, though Berg's petition is on the justices' private Dec. 8 conference list (all petitions filed with the court get consideration). It's an indication of how seriously the government takes the case that Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre has waived his right to respond to the petition.

Tale of the Ticker Tape

The Geithner Counter continues to find a future in the market. When word leaked Friday that New York Fed chief Timothy Geithner was Obama's pick to be Treasury secretary, the Dow went up 494 points. Yesterday, when Obama officially announced him, along with Berkeley economics professor Christina Romer to head the Council of Economic Advisers; former Treasury chief Lawrence Summers to head the National Economic Council; and Melody Barnes, former executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, to be domestic policy adviser, the Dow went up 397 more points.

Geithner's batting pretty well for a rookie. If Summers had smiled a bit, the numbers might have gone up even more.

With Philip Rucker

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