Federal emergency management officials are investigating allegations of cronyism and other misconduct at the New Orleans office that is overseeing efforts to rebuild the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast, U.S. authorities said Wednesday.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has endured fierce criticism over delays in the rebuilding effort, sent a team of Washington investigators to the office last week. The agency expects a report on findings in the coming days, two top officials said at a congressional hearing on the Hurricane Katrina recovery.
They acknowledged the investigation under questioning from newly sworn-in Republican Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao of New Orleans, who said there have been allegations of sexual harassment, cronyism, nepotism and other ethics violations.
"I personally am very concerned," James Stark, the emergency agency's New Orleans-based assistant administrator for Gulf Coast Recovery, told Cao. "Each one of those allegations you brought up is being investigated fully."
Cao, who met with employees of the recovery office recently, said outside the hearing that his office also is exploring possible corruption, but he declined to elaborate.
Emergency agency officials said their investigation is focused on personnel issues such as equal employment opportunity complaints and that they have not received allegations of deeper problems.
"The bottom line is, is there a hostile working environment," said David Garratt, the agency's acting deputy administrator.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees the agency, is expected to tour the region in March.
The agency has been in the crosshairs of local and state officials for years, blamed for much of the slow pace of the recovery. The agency is managing funding for billions of dollars in public infrastructure projects and its Louisiana offices provide an on-the-ground supervisory presence.
Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and devastating much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.