Ex-FEMA official faces questions in trailer cases

Published 4:49 pm Thursday, June 18, 2009

The federal government is seeking to block plaintiffs’ lawyers from questioning a former top FEMA official under oath about the agency’s response to concerns about air quality in government-issued trailers used to shelter hurricane victims.

Government lawyers are seeking a protective order that would shield former deputy FEMA administrator Harvey Johnson Jr. from a deposition by attorneys for hundreds of Gulf Coast residents who lived in FEMA trailers after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt gave plaintiffs’ lawyers until June 22 to respond to that request before he rules.

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The government said Johnson had “very limited personal involvement in FEMA’s response to formaldehyde concerns,” which spawned hundreds of claims against the Federal Emergency Management Agency and trailer makers.

“Certainly, by virtue of his position, Johnson was privy to much of the information regarding FEMA’s response to formaldehyde concerns during his tenure,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in court papers dated June 13. “But he was not involved in a ’material way’ in directing that response.”

Justin Woods, one of the lead lawyers for plaintiffs, said the deposition is designed to determine “what he did and what he knew” about the agency’s response to concerns about elevated levels of formaldehyde in FEMA trailers. Formaldehyde, which is used in construction materials, can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.

“Even though Harvey Johnson came to FEMA late, some of the decisions made were made during his tenure,” Woods said.

Johnson, whose appointment by the Bush administration was confirmed by the Senate, served as second-in-command at FEMA from May 2006 to January 2009.

“Clearly, Admiral Johnson’s duties with FEMA are sufficient to qualify him for the protection from deposition due a high-ranking government official,” government lawyers wrote.

Engelhardt is presiding over a batch of consolidated lawsuits over the formaldehyde levels in FEMA trailers. The first trial for one of the cases is scheduled to start Sept. 14.