BATON ROUGE, La. — Amid harsh criticism of federal relief efforts, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff announced Friday that Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is handing over Hurricane Katrina relief duties to a Coast Guard official and returning to Washington to oversee the national office.
“Other challenges and threats remain around the world,” and Brown is needed to prepare for those, Chertoff said at a news conference in Baton Rouge.
“Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge,” Chertoff added. He sidestepped a question on whether the move was the first step toward Brown’s leaving FEMA.
But a source close to Brown, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FEMA director had been considering leaving after the hurricane season ended in November and that Friday’s action virtually assures his departure.
Chertoff did not allow reporters to ask Brown questions directly and would not respond to the Time magazine report Friday that Brown’s official biography overstated his emergency-management experience.
President Bush said last week that the initial federal efforts were not acceptable. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday that local and state officials shouldn’t have to share in the blame for the poor response because they “were in fact victims and not able to respond.”
Brown blames media
Asked ahead of the announcement if he was being made a scapegoat, Brown told The Associated Press after a long pause: "By the press, yes. By the president, no."
“I’m anxious to get back to D.C. to correct all the inaccuracies and lies that are being said,” Brown said.
Asked if the move was a demotion, Brown said: “No. No. I’m still the director of FEMA.”
He said Chertoff made the decision to move him out of Louisiana. It was not his decision, Brown said.
“I’m going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife and, maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night’s sleep. And then I’m going to go right back to FEMA and continue to do all I can to help these victims,” Brown said. “This story’s not about me. This story’s about the worst disaster of the history of our country that stretched every government to its limit and now we have to help these victims.”
“That’s all I’ve wanted to do,” Brown said in a telephone interview.
GOP senator among critics
Republican Sen. Trent Lott, whose Pascagoula, Miss., home was destroyed in the storm, said after the announcement that he had concluded that FEMA “was overwhelmed, undermanned and not capable of doing its job” under Brown’s leadership.
“Michael Brown has been acting like a private, instead of a general,” Lott said.
Democratic lawmakers weren’t satisfied with the move, and demanded Brown’s ouster from FEMA.
“The events of the last ten days have shown that Mr. Brown has repeatedly exercised poor judgment and has failed in his basic responsibilities,” said a letter to Bush from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Sens. Dick Durbin, Debbie Stabenow and Charles Schumer. “His continued presence in this critical position endangers the success of the ongoing recovery efforts. ... It is not enough to remove Mr. Brown from the disaster scene.”
The Time magazine report centers on Brown's biography. The FEMA Web site says he had once served as an "assistant city manager with emergency services oversight," and a White House news release in 2001 said Brown had worked for the city of Edmond, Okla., in the 1970s "overseeing the emergency-services division."
Video: New questions about FEMA chief However, a city spokeswoman told Time magazine that Brown had actually worked as "an assistant to the city manager."
"The assistant is more like an intern," Claudia Deakins told the magazine. "Department heads did not report to him." Time posted the article on its Web site late on Thursday.
On Friday, Deakins issued a clarification of her remarks to Time, saying that she did not actually work in Edmond at the same time as Brown, and therefore cannot speak with any authority about his assignments at the time.
"I regret any misunderstandings that may have occurred as a result of my comments," Deakins said.
A former mayor of Edmond, Randel Shadid, confirmed Friday that Brown was an assistant to the city manager. Shadid told The Associated Press that Brown had never been an assistant city manager, though.
FEMA, White House respond
“I think there’s a difference between the two positions,” said Shadid. “I would think that is a discrepancy.”
Nicol Andrews, deputy strategic director in FEMA’s office of public affairs, told Time that while Brown began as an intern, he became an “assistant city manager” with a distinguished record of service.
“According to Mike Brown,” Andrews told Time, a large portion of points raised by the magazine are “very inaccurate.”
White House press secretary Scott McClellan referred all questions about Brown’s resume to FEMA.
McClellan said the White House’s earlier statements that Brown retained the president’s confidence remain true — but he declined to state that confidence outright.
“I’d leave it where I left it,” McClellan said. “We appreciate the work of all those who have been working around the clock to respond to what has been on the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history.”
Last Friday, Bush praised Brown during a tour of Alabama, telling him, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
Brown, a lawyer, was appointed as FEMA's general counsel in 2001 and became head of the agency in 2003. The work in Edmond is the only previous disaster-related experience cited in the biographies. Brown served as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association before taking the FEMA job.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, had cited Brown's Edmond experience as "particularly useful" for FEMA during a hearing in 2002.
Other FEMA officials
The Washington Post reported on Friday that five of eight top FEMA officials had come to their jobs with virtually no experience in handling disasters. The agency's top three leaders, including Brown, had ties to Bush's 2000 presidential campaign or the White House advance operation.
Former Edmond city manager Bill Dashner recalled for Time that Brown had worked for him as an administrative assistant while attending Central State University.
"Mike used to handle a lot of details. Every now and again I'd ask him to write me a speech. He was very loyal. He was always on time. He always had on a suit and a starched white shirt," Dashner told Time.
Edmond's population is about 70,000.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.