FEMA chief reassigns staffer under fire

Published 12:44 am Sunday, March 1, 2009

A top FEMA official in Louisiana has been reassigned while the agency investigates allegations of misconduct by employees in its New Orleans hurricane recovery office, officials said Friday.

Acting FEMA Administrator Nancy Ward said the office’s chief of staff, Doug Whitmer, was asked to take a temporary assignment at a regional office in Denton, Texas, following a “spike” in complaints by other employees.

The agency named Tony Russell, an official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Denver, to lead the Louisiana field office until that role is filled permanently, spokesman Marty Bahamonde said late Friday.

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Jim Stark held the position before being promoted to head of FEMA’s Gulf Coast Recovery Office, which is based in New Orleans and oversees recovery efforts from the hurricanes of 2005 and last summer.

Nobody has been asked to resign, Ward said Friday in between visits with FEMA employees in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

“We are ready to make changes,” Ward said, “but we want to make sure that everyone has due process and that we have all of the facts before we make any changes.”

A congressional hearing earlier this week aired allegations of sexual harassment, cronyism, nepotism and other ethics violations at the office. On Thursday, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, R-La., called for Whitmer to resign.

Landrieu said Whitmer is the target of more than 30 complaints by co-workers, but a FEMA spokesman wouldn’t confirm if Witmer had any against him. Cao also has called for Stark’s resignation, but Ward said she wants to fully investigate the allegations before deciding if broader staffing changes are warranted.

Russell’s new acting role “has nothing to do with Jim Stark’s role,” Bahamonde said. “It was a position that was vacant.”

FEMA has 400 to 500 employees working at its New Orleans recovery office, with a total of about 950 core employees and 280 contractors working in Louisiana.

Ward said FEMA has fielded 71 formal or informal complaints from its Louisiana employees since the 2009 fiscal year began last Oct. 1. That’s compared to 194 informal complaints filed in the previous fiscal year; 154 of those complaints were resolved without a formal complaint being made. In fiscal 2007, FEMA resolved 140 of 181 informal complaints with a formal complaint.

Ward said she spent more than an hour answering questions from rank-and-file employees in New Orleans.

“There were a lot of comments about the work environment being stressful, but there were equally a number of comments about ensuring that we don’t rush to judgment,” she said.

Cao, who met with Ward at the New Orleans office Friday, said he received assurances that “changes would be made.”

“When you have low morale in any office, production will be decreased,” he said. “So I hope that with the changes, morale will increase and I hope that, through that, the production also will increase.”

A spokesman for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees FEMA, said Ward’s trip to New Orleans reflects the government’s increasing scrutiny of the allegations. Napolitano is expected to tour the Gulf Coast region in March.

Landrieu said she fears a “toxic” working environment is slowing the region’s recovery from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, but Ward downplayed those concerns.

“I have not heard anything that relates productivity on projects with the correlation to the complaints that we have heard from employees,” Ward said.