Exclusive: Media Maelstrom Over Michael Brown

“Where do I go to get my reputation back?” Ray Donovan, President Reagan’s Labor secretary, poignantly asked that question when, after the media had adjudged him guilty, he was acquitted in court of corruption charges. Former FEMA Director Michael Brown might ask the same question.

While Brown was doing everything humanly possible to help the victims of the largest natural disaster in American history, America’s media, aided and abetted by numerous politicians, served as accuser, prosecutor, judge and jury to convict him as the poster boy of incompetence. The only problem? It wasn’t so.

The story is an old one. A government official becomes a target. Reporters nose around. People from the person’s past come out of the woodwork with stories, innuendo, and out-and-out lies.

While trying to do the job, the official responds. The first fire gets quenched, but another starts, then another, and then another.

The media quote themselves; the original false report is gospel. Then, reporters hear the bugle call—“Questions have been raised.” That’s the death knell. Once “questions have been raised,” the truth doesn’t matter. Now the official has “attracted controversy,” and must go.

Poor Michael Brown. My long-time friend was the latest victim. And it wasn’t just the media. The politicians joined in. And not just his political opponents. His supposed friends did, too.

By federal government standards, FEMA is tiny. According to its website, FEMA has only about 2,600 full time employees.

Many believe that FEMA is responsible for rescuing people, serving as “first responders,” taking charge of recovery efforts, even calling out the National Guard. Not so. Those jobs belong primarily to state and local officials.

In fact, many disasters don’t involve FEMA. “FEMA is only brought in after the governor of the state requests a federal disaster designation from the President.”

This arrangement exists because it makes sense and because of long-standing notions of federalism. As Brown testified before Congress: “Those principals of federalism should not be lost in a short-term desire to react to a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions.” Ignoring federalism will cause “waste of taxpayer dollars at the federal level” and will destroy local decision-making regarding “the unique needs of each community.”

What does FEMA do? Generally, it helps the states, those primarily responsible for disaster relief, conduct their business. FEMA funnels federal funds, essentially an effort to distribute the cost of emergencies throughout the country. And it acts as a federal umbrella for state disaster agencies.

What happened here? The disaster was overwhelming. The relief effort appeared slow. Someone had to pay. Several days passed when, as the New York Times put it, Brown had the audacity to “display striking candor.” Apparently, telling the truth is considered “boneheaded.”

Distorting the Truth

The sharks smelled blood. It was time to dig up dirt. The blogosphere came to the rescue.

Suddenly, a swirl of stories appeared that Brown had been forced out of his last job. Who broke the story? Not the major media. It was a website, aptly named The story was false. But the media picked it up, ran with it, and kept repeating it.

Brown had served as the first commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. A major part of his job was to prosecute wrongdoing by IAHA judges; some were among the world’s leading trainers of these highly prized, highly priced animals. Tom Connelly, IAHA president when Brown resigned, put it well when he said that Brown “was unpopular, if the person he was investigating was your trainer.”

I know the facts of Brown’s tenure with the IAHA. I was his lawyer. I was there. The story the media portrayed is untrue. Brown had done his job with distinction. He had been attacked both publicly and in court by people with lots of money. He stood in the breach. He did his job despite the attacks. And he prevailed. He left IAHA on his own terms. He was not forced out.

Yet the truth might get in the way of a good story. In any event, by repeating the story, the media made Brown “controversial.”

Once “questions have been raised,” anything is fair game. The next step—smear Brown, and smear anything in his past. The New Republic got the jump.

Paul Campos, a Colorado University law professor, wrote that Brown is “a failed former lawyer—a man with a 20-year old degree from a semi-accredited law school who hadn’t attempted to practice law in a serious way in nearly 15 years and who had just been forced out of his job in the wake of charges of impropriety.” The professor writes well: in one sentence, he skewers Brown with at least six falsehoods.

To get to Brown, Campos smeared Oklahoma City University School of Law as “to put it charitably, [not] a well-known institution,” citing, as if it mattered, his own ignorance of it. His article, dripping with snobbery, may play well with certain sectors. Apparently, TNR thinks so.

I’m surprised, though, that the professor didn’t complain when President Clinton nominated Robert Henry, then the dean of the same “semi-accredited” law school, to serve on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. That’s the federal circuit that covers both Oklahoma and Colorado, where Campos teaches. Henry has served with distinction for over a decade.

But the top hatchet job came just over a day later, from Time. Filled with lies, the Time article did the trick. A few hours after its publication, Brown was recalled to Washington. Three days later, he resigned.

Time’s indictment: Brown was not “assistant city manager” in Edmond, Okla.; he was an “assistant to the manager,” supposedly an intern’s position. To make the accusation fit, Time twisted Edmond city spokesperson Claudia Deakin’s comments. Deakins has complained about Time’s inaccuracies; Time still hasn’t bothered to retract.

Had Time sought the truth, it could have talked with former Edmond Mayor Carl Reherman or former City Attorney Mary Ann Karns, both of whom served with Brown. They both provided affidavits, completely refuting the allegations.

Time claimed that Brown’s resume falsely states that he was an adjunct professor. So did several others, all citing Time. Having been a guest lecturer for Brown one day back in 1988 when he was an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City University law school, I was surprised to hear this too was “controversial.” Associate Dean Patricia Hatamyar’s affidavit refutes that charge.

Time ended its piece quoting Brown’s first boss after law school as criticizing his work. Too bad Time didn’t bother to look at the written reviews the same person gave Brown at the time, where he called Brown “an asset to the firm,” and described Brown’s work as “excellent,” “first rate,” and “outstanding.”

Neither Time nor most of the other major media let facts deter them. In the midst of America’s worst natural disaster, they shamelessly repeated false stories told by people with ancient personal grudges. Shockingly, Time gave Brown only 45 minutes to respond to its error-filled story.

Six weeks later, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times finally questioned why approximately 100 different stories reported as fact that Brown and his FEMA predecessor, Joe Allbaugh, had been college roommates when, in fact, they weren’t. As Brown, who was married at the time, quipped, “I think my wife would have said something about that.”

Regardless of the facts, it’s become conventional wisdom that Brown, who successfully led the national response to over 150 presidentially declared disasters, including some of the largest in history, didn’t have sufficient experience. That, too, is not so.

Contrary to reports, Brown had significant experience in state and local government and even helped design an emergency operations center and plan in one city. In 2001, he came to FEMA as its general counsel. From there, he rose through the ranks.

After half a year on the job, he led the FEMA headquarters response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. He was the point man for the response to the attack on the Pentagon. In 2002, he was named FEMA’s deputy director; in 2003, he became its director. He led the national response to the California wildfires, the historic outbreak of tornadoes in the Midwest, and the four hurricanes, one on top of another, in Florida in 2004.

The last laugh, though, was on the media. It turns out that, while they were taking potshots at President Bush through Brown, they actually were firing blanks. It seems this is precisely what the administration wanted.

Beating Up on Brown

Last September, in the midst of the numerous false allegations concerning Brown, one senior administration official who is extremely close to the President told Brown that the media maelstrom surrounding him fit perfectly with administration desires. Referring to a Cabinet meeting shortly after Labor Day, this person stated that “someone commented that the press was sure beating up on Mike Brown, to which the President replied, ‘I’d rather they beat up on him than me or Chertoff.’”

Is it any wonder that the administration didn’t want Michael Brown to testify before Congress about his conversations with the White House? Last January, during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee staff interview, Brown was asked several questions concerning his conversations with the President and his top aides. At the direction of the White House, FEMA’s general counsel repeatedly objected to testimony about what he called “executive level communications.”

As Brown’s lawyer, I wrote to White House Counsel Harriet Miers, indicating Brown’s intention to answer all questions, yet, out of respect for the President, giving the White House the opportunity to claim executive privilege.

Executive privilege is a well-recognized exception to the rule that those who appear before Congress (or as witnesses in court) must answer all questions put to them. The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that “the public interest requires that a coequal branch of Government ‘afford Presidential confidentiality the greatest protection consistent with the fair administration of justice.’” The right of claiming the privilege belongs to the President.

Specifically, I asked Ms. Miers, “If the President desires to claim some sort of privilege, please provide specific direction as to which communications with which individuals will be covered.” The response Brown received, however, did not answer the question.

Miers’ letter reflected the President’s desire that Brown not respond to such questions. But the White House apparently did not want to take the heat that a claim of executive privilege would entail. As Sen. Susan Collins, the committee chairwoman, said, “I had a lengthy discussion last night with the White House counsel, in which I advised her to either send Mr. Brown a clear letter asserting executive privilege or to send it to this committee, or to have a member of the White House Counsel’s Office present today to object to questions. And Ms. Miers declined to do either.”

Once again, Brown was left to hang on his own. He could do as the White House asked: not answer the questions. But, in doing so, he would leave himself open to a criminal charge of contempt of Congress. Or he could do as any citizen should do: answer the questions.

Now that the tapes of the secure video teleconferences have demonstrated beyond doubt that Michael Brown was ably doing his job, we know why some in the administration wanted Brown not to answer those questions. Instead of being the bumbler the media portrayed, Michael Brown was the one who sounded the alarm. He repeatedly urged everyone to move forward all their resources, to “push the envelope,” even to “jump over the envelope.” He was on the job, was doing his job, and was making sure that the people above him—both the White House and Secretary Chertoff—were fully aware, in a timely manner, of everything that was going on.

On Sunday before landfall, he warned of problems with the Superdome. By noon on Monday, the day of landfall, he had already talked with the President twice, including about the reports of levee breaches.

The bias of the mainstream media has become so widespread that everyone now can exploit it. The White House, knowing the media’s bent, did a good job of it: journalists’ visceral hatred of the President was so strong that the White House easily diverted hostile commentary away from itself and Chertoff and onto Brown.

That may serve the Republican cause. But it isn’t right. Defamation never is.

The Washington personal destruction machine claims another victim. Michael Brown becomes another name in the pantheon of chewed up, spit out public servants. Members of the media and politicians move on, worrying not a bit about what’s right or true.

The Michael Brown I’ve known for almost a quarter of a century is a good, honest, compassionate, competent leader. He will endure. He demonstrated that last September when he and his family survived the unprecedented media attacks against him. He showed it when he withstood over six hours of grilling by the House of Representatives. He proved it again last month when he bravely withstood yet another hit-and-run personal attack by Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman during his testimony before the Senate.

Michael Brown isn’t the first to be put through the Washington wringer. I pray, though, that he is the last.