Brown: Hot in the hot seat

To make his case to the special congressional committee investigating the Hurricane Katrina response, ex-Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown brought three affidavits and two exhibits — and that just covered the 1970s and 1980s.

Brown sought to dispel what he described as false charges leveled against him by the media in the days after Katrina turned the Gulf Coast into a waterlogged wasteland. His experience as assistant to the city manager of Edmond, Okla., Brown testified, prepared him for the horrors of the hurricane.

“I know what it was like to see a family’s house burn to the ground. They had a Christmas tree that was faulty, lights that were faulty. … You see, I get it,” Brown told 11 House Republicans and two Democrats, Reps. Gene Taylor (Miss.) and William Jefferson (La.), who showed up at the hearing despite their leadership’s boycott of the probe.

Few lawmakers were buying it. Taylor, who stayed in his Bay St. Louis district to give aid to victims despite the safety risk, took frustrated swigs from a plastic soda bottle as Brown tried to talk over him.

“I was there,” Taylor told the unapologetic witness. “I don’t recall seeing you there.” The photographers clustered in front of Brown turned around to Taylor for a few shots, knowing a dramatic moment when they saw one. And the hearing was just getting started.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), onetime aspirant to the Government Reform Committee chairmanship now held by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), also head of the Katrina committee, took his turn eagerly.

Shays wondered what Brown, who frequently invoked the Jeffersonian principle of federalism to shift blame away from FEMA and onto local governments, would have done if offered the Louisiana Purchase.

“I have the sense that, if you were there, you wouldn’t have bought it,” Shays said grimly to scattered laughter and Brown’s great umbrage.

The former FEMA chief, ridiculed by pundits for his previous job leading an Arabian-horse association, lashed out at Shays’s wistful invocation of the New York City mayor’s leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I never thought that I’d sit here and be berated for not being Rudy Giuliani. I’d do a lot of things differently,” Brown said with a slap of his hand, his ring thumping against the wooden table. “I’d take teams, search-and-rescue teams, and I’d move all those [down] there, sir!”

Davis leaned back in his chair to get a better look at Shays and jumped in when Brown proved reluctant to share the content of his White House e-mails.

“You discussed them with The New York Times,” Davis noted dryly. “What you discussed with The New York Times, I think you can share with this committee.” Taylor tapped his pencil nervously.

After Taylor and Shays finished their pointed rounds of questioning, the two men huddled next to each other for a lengthy, whispered conversation. But neither needed to work too hard at enticing Brown into a slip of the tongue.

When Shays asked directly how Brown “coordinated the evacuation” of Louisiana, Brown replied that he had urged Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) to issue mandatory orders. Minutes later, Brown insisted that “coordination is not applicable to evacuation.”

Davis closed the exchange by reminding Brown that he was under oath.

While White House officials repeatedly said earlier this month that they would not play the blame game in the wake of Katrina, Brown played it again and again yesterday. Most of Brown’s blame was directed at Blanco and Nagin, with praise heaped upon the work of other Gulf Coast governors.

“I don’t want to make this partisan, but I can’t help that Alabama and Mississippi are governed by Republican governors,” he said.

At one point, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds FEMA’s parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), produced documents that seemed to belie Brown’s lament that FEMA was underfunded and a shadow of its former self.

Congress appropriated $19.4 million for FEMA communication equipment in Louisiana in 2004, Rogers said, more than the allotment for major cities such as Boston or Las Vegas. His confident posture easing slightly, Brown explained that money had been shifted out of FEMA’s accounts by DHS leadership and promised to provide the committee with proof of the transfers.

“Perhaps I’m not as brave as some people say I am,” Brown said, in reference to an earlier compliment from Taylor. “Perhaps I should have just resigned my post earlier and gone public” with criticism of DHS budget management, which Brown said he voiced in private.

FEMA’s coffers are stocked enough to keep Brown on its payroll, however, where he will remain for at least the next few weeks as a consultant while the agency evaluates its own scattershot response to Katrina.

Nearly 30 extra seats in the hearing room were reserved for reporters, some of whom visibly contained their surprise at Brown’s responses. “It’s a popular hearing,” a committee aide mused, but the media dominated more than just the guest list.

Brown, who entered after Davis had already began an opening statement, said his first mistake in leading the hurricane response effort was not holding enough briefings for a press that he later labeled “hysterical.” Continuing his remarks with several flourishes of a pointed finger, Brown castigated Time magazine and the political blog horsesass.org for purveying defamatory statements that led to his forced resignation from the helm of FEMA.

The creator of horseass.org, meanwhile, posted a sarcastic rejoinder: “Thanks  for the on-air plug, Mike!”