FEMA Press Secretary Directed Fake News Briefing, Inquiry Finds
An internal investigation into a fake news conference staged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during last month's California wildfires found that the agency's press secretary directed aides to pose as reporters, secretly coached them during the briefing and ended the event after a final, scripted question was asked, according to a senior FEMA official.
The inquiry, completed Monday, left several unanswered questions. It could not corroborate accounts that the agency's No. 2 official, Harvey E. Johnson Jr., was told before he led the Oct. 23 briefing that FEMA staff members would pose questions.
Nor did the inquiry fully explain the event's rushed timing. FEMA announced the news conference at its
FEMA officials hurriedly went ahead with the event, and Johnson, who was live on some cable news channels, praised FEMA's response as far better than its reaction to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
The review "found nothing that indicated malicious or preconceived intent to deceive the media or the public," said FEMA's acting director of external affairs, Russ Knocke, who conducted the inquiry. "As an aside, the content of the press event was accurate," Knocke said Wednesday night. "It is obvious that there was a significant lack of leadership within FEMA external affairs."
In an interview, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the agency's press secretary, Aaron Walker, resigned at his request, effective Dec. 7.
Paulison said he did not expect additional disciplinary action but would reorganize and retrain the agency's 90-member external affairs staff.
"Those are career people. They should have stepped up and said something, they really should have. But their bosses said 'Do this,' and they did it -- some reluctantly, but there's no excuses for that," Paulison said. He called the impact on FEMA's credibility "devastating."
A senior FEMA official described the investigation's findings but spoke on the condition of anonymity and would not make them public, citing information about personnel.
According to the review, Philbin was told around 11:50 a.m. to hold a briefing that afternoon and instructed
At 12:54 p.m., six minutes before the briefing was to start,
Walker specifically told Mike Widomski, deputy director of public affairs, which question to ask first and assigned press aide Ali Kirin to ask a sixth and final question. Off camera,
In an interview,
"Across the board, there was no effort to misinform, to put on a charade. It was simply a poor choice across the board of a method to get some information out,"
The review concluded that Johnson, a retired Coast Guard vice admiral and FEMA's deputy administrator, was "poorly served" by aides who rushed him into the news conference without explaining the circumstances.
Two career employees signed statements saying that
But Johnson told the investigation that "he does not recall being advised that staff would be asking questions." Of four aides with Johnson before the briefing, three, including
"There is not a lot of consistency in terms of recollection of what was said, but it's clear from everyone that there was not an adequate briefing," the FEMA official said. "There was poor staff service of agency leadership."
Paulison said he had "tremendous confidence" in Johnson. He praised his deputy's honesty and ethics and the "ungodly amount of hours" Johnson has spent rebuilding the agency. "It wasn't intentional, but he was set up," Paulison said, "and he walked in there, and he didn't know everyone in the room."
In an earlier statement, Johnson said FEMA's intent was to provide information as soon as possible, and he apologized "for this error in judgment."
FEMA has announced it will give at least one hour's notice of future news conferences, allow only reporters to ask questions and no longer bar reporters listening on teleconference lines from asking questions.