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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Mike Brown’s Fall

In just two short weeks, Brown went from being a little-known bureaucrat to a national punching bag -- a target for news commentators and late-night comedians.

As criticism of him grew last week, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Brown sent a candid e-mail to family and friends.

“I don’t mind the negative press (well, actually, I do, but I try to ignore it) but it is really wearing out the family,” Brown wrote. “No wonder people don’t go into public service. This country is devouring itself, the 24-hour news cycle is numbing our ability to think for ourselves.”

On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sent Brown back to FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and put Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen in charge of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Brown resigned Monday, saying it was in the best interest of the agency and the president.

Angry lawmakers had been calling for Brown’s outright firing, claiming he bungled his job and left hurricane victims suffering in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Critics dismissed Brown as a political crony with little emergency-services experience. And a Time magazine report Friday suggested his credentials were exaggerated in his official White House biography.

In just two short weeks, Brown went from being a little-known bureaucrat to a national punching bag — a target for news commentators and late-night comedians. But friends and former colleagues described him as a well-meaning man who has made a career of a series of thankless, flak-catching jobs.

“It’s horrible,” said Mary Ann Karns, an Oklahoma lawyer who once worked with Brown in the Edmond, Okla., city government. “He does not deserve this as a human being.”

When Karns got Brown’s e-mail addressed to “friends and family” last week, she offered to drive to Louisiana to “evacuate” him from the media storm.

Chertoff did the equivalent with Friday’s decision, but not before Brown’s background and eclectic resume were put under the media microscope.

Brown was born in 1954 in Guymon, an Oklahoma panhandle city. At Central State College in Edmond, he studied public administration and political science. He earned a law degree from Oklahoma City University in 1981.

While studying to become a lawyer, he worked in the administration of the small but fast-growing city of Edmond.

Years later, Brown’s official White House biography would list the position as “assistant city manager with emergency services oversight.” Karns said his actual title was more modest: assistant to the city manager.

In its online editions Friday, Time magazine pointed out that and other alleged discrepancies, accusing Brown of “padding” his resume and emergency services credentials when he was nominated for a job at FEMA.

City spokeswoman Claudia Deakins told Time that Brown’s job gave him no authority over other employees and that the assistant position “is more like an intern.” She declined to comment Friday, but issued a clarification by e-mail saying she did not work for the city when Brown was there and that she could only speak about the city’s current organization.

Despite Brown’s lower-level position, Karns said he did help the city improve its emergency communications system following a disastrous flood in 1977.

“I know Mike was involved in putting together preparedness and response after that,” she said. Besides, Karns added, “You can’t live in Oklahoma and not understand something about disasters.”

In the 1980s, Brown started a private law practice, working for insurance, energy and ranching interests. He also worked as a committee staff member for Republicans in the Oklahoma state senate. He returned to Edmond and won a seat on the City Council.

His hopes of winning a higher office died in 1988, when, as a Republican, he took on an entrenched Democratic congressman, former Rep. Glenn English, and won just 27 percent of the vote.

“He got beat, but he continued to find ways to serve,” said Dave Lock, a friend and former neighbor in Lyons, Colo.

Brown moved to Colorado in the early 1990s to join the International Arabian Horse Association. As its commissioner, he enforced strict rules governing the association’s lucrative horse show circuit. His decisions often resulted in investigations and contentious lawsuits by people protesting sanctions against them.

“It’s somewhat of a thankless position, as the current one is as well,” said Andy Lester, Brown’s longtime friend and attorney.

One high-profile case involved charges that a prominent trainer used cosmetic surgery to give a horse an edge. The trainer fought back with a lawsuit. Although the association eventually prevailed, the costly litigation reportedly caused friction between Brown and board members, according to an account in Arabian Horse World magazine.

Board members questioned why Brown had set up a separate legal defense fund, prompting a bitter dispute that eventually led to a negotiated severance for Brown in September 2000, former association secretary Gary Dearth said in the 2000 article.

Dearth said that at one board meeting Brown, the father of two grown children, said “he wanted to resign, that he was tired, that he didn’t like the effect on his family that this was having, and he felt like it was time to go.” Contacted this week, Dearth declined to elaborate.

The horse association later merged with another group and is now called the Arabian Horse Association. In a written statement, current officials described Brown’s departure as amicable, saying Brown turned over his legal defense fund to the organization when he left and that he was temporarily retained as a consultant.

“Mr. Brown had a long and successful career with IAHA and was regarded as upholding the highest standards of integrity and demanding excellence in all areas under his jurisdiction,” said Barbara Burck, executive vice president and chief administrator.

At the end of 2000, Brown became executive director of the Independent Electrical Contractors in Denver. But he was on the job only several weeks before he was tapped to join a college friend in a big, new job.

The friend, Oklahoma native Joe Allbaugh, helped run President Bush’s first election campaign. After he became Bush’s first FEMA director, he brought on Brown to be the agency’s top lawyer.

The two were together on Sept. 11, 2001, when their plane landed in South Dakota and they had to fly back to Washington _ with fighter-jet escort _ to begin dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Brown’s backers point to that day _ and the hundreds of federal emergency declarations Brown has dealt with since then _ as giving him all the experience critics say he lacks.

Brown shifted from FEMA lawyer to deputy director, then replaced Allbaugh when he left for the private sector in 2003. Brown’s defenders see that as a natural evolution, but that’s not how critics see it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said it was clear that Brown was “over his head” as -FEMA director.

“He shouldn’t get a medal and he shouldn’t get a promotion; he should get his walking papers,” Udall said before Brown’s resignation Monday.

(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at