Was the Phony FEMA News Conference Illegal? Why Did One Participant Suddenly Depart to a Cushy Job at Another Agency?

In case you’re just tuning in to this story, last Tuesday, Oct. 23, as the wildfires raged in Southern California, FEMA held a news conference that was broadcast by the cable newsers. Within hours, however, it was revealed that the entire news conference was fake. That’s right — good ol’ gubmint propaganda:

The Bush administration was reprimanded in 2005 for using the taxpayers’ dime to tart up government spin as hard news.

[FEMA] had called the briefing with about 15 minutes notice as federal officials headed for southern California to oversee and assist in firefighting and rescue efforts. Reporters were also given a telephone number to listen in on but could not ask questions.

But with no reporters on hand and an agency video camera providing a feed carried live by some television networks, FEMA press employees posed the questions for Johnson that included: “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?”

According to Friday’s Post account, which Walker confirmed, Johnson replied that he was “very happy with FEMA’s response so far.”

He also said the agency had the benefit of “good leadership” and other factors, “none of which were present at Katrina.” Chertoff was head of the Homeland Security Department during Katrina.

FEMA’s administrator during Katrina, Michael Brown, resigned amid widespread criticism over his handling of the disaster, despite U.S. President George W. Bush’s initial declaration that he was doing a “heck of a job.”

Michael Chertoff, the Republican political operative who serves as Bush’s Secretary of the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS), seemed angry:

“I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve seen since I’ve been in government,” said Mr Chertoff.

“I have made unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment.”

But at roughly the same time that Chertoff was declaring that “appropriate disciplinary action” would be taken, one of the participants was being transferred to another high-profile agency and, apparently, promoted:

Just three days after FEMA is outed for a staging a fake press conference, its Director of External Affairs John “Pat” Philbin lands an “amazing opportunity to head the communications shop at [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence],” according to FEMA’s press secretary Aaron Walker (via email to PRNewser). The Washington Post confirmed the news through Vance Vines, Spokeswoman at ODNI.

Philbin and Walker were among the staffers asking questions at the press conference which was carried live by the cable networks. The agency quickly apologized.

Heck of a job, guys.

The story doesn’t mention it but can we assume Philbin also got a tidy raise? And that’s just for starters. Why would Philbin be rewarded for such a stupid and embarrassing mistake? Is he being protected, and if so by whom? Who at the White House knew about or approved FEMA’s phony news conference? (And if no one knew, why not?)

Finally: Was it illegal? Using the taxpayers’ dime to tart up government spin as hard news definitely violates the law — and Bushies know this because they were caught redhanded and reprimanded two years ago:

Federal auditors said that the Bush administration violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of President Bush’s education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party.

In a blistering report [released on Sept. 29, 2005], the investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said the administration had disseminated “covert propaganda” in the United States, in violation of a statutory ban.

Beyond the reprimand, it’s unclear whether anyone in government was held accountable for this criminal act. Armstrong Williams — the black conservative pundit who is allegedly gay — may have lost work and his reputation may have suffered temporarily, but he is back on camera now.

Whether the phony news conference was a crime or just the phenomenal incompetence we’ve come to expect from Republicans in power, the American people need to know exactly what these chuckleheads were up to. I hope Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Waxman are curious too.


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  • TheBritisher
    October 29, 2007 - 4:04 am | Permalink

    How can this not be clearer? The more you are able to fuck things up the higher you are promoted, have you seen the president and his vice?

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  • Eden Moura
    November 8, 2007 - 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Right, and the Democrats have the corner on competence right? Go look at the consequences of the “great society” on inner city family relations and demographics,then explain how a greater than 50 pct. illegitimacy rate in the inner cities of this country is a sign of competent domestic leadership! You !#$!#@% hypocrites.

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