Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Are You Experienced?

[[H I R I N G S]] * So, the scandal surrounding recently resigned FEMA head Michael Brown didn’t make you question George W. Bush’s judgment when it comes to hiring personnel for his administration? Then how about news that David H. Safavian, who until last Friday was chief administrator at the federal procurement office in the White House Office of Management and Budget, was arrested yesterday and “accused of lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s dealings with the federal government,” as reported by The Washington Post.

Court papers contend that the 38-year-old Safavian deceived investigators about having helped Abramoff in his 2002 bid to gain control over a couple of large pieces of government-owned property in the Washington, D.C., area, including the landmark Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. At that time, Safavian was chief of staff at the General Services Administration, which manages federal real estate. Safavian is further accused of lying to GSA ethics officials “when he sought approval to accept free transportation from Mr. Abramoff for [a] golf trip to Scotland that summer [of 2002],” The New York Times explains. “According to court documents, Mr. Safavian told the ethics office that Mr. Abramoff had no business with the agency at the time, an assertion that was repeated in a separate interview this May with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

The Post notes that this is “the first criminal complaint filed against a government official in the ongoing corruption probe related to Abramoff's activities in Washington.” “Superlobbyist” Abramoff, you’ll recall, was once described by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as one of his “closest and dearest friends,” and he’s also been associated with anti-tax lobbying Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition and now a candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia, among other Republicans. He’s currently under investigation by the Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, for his allegedly illicit dealings with casino-rich Indian tribes, which brought Abramoff and an associated more than $8 million. And Abramoff was indicted by federal prosecutors in August on charges having to do with conspiracy and wire fraud.

Safavian, a lawyer and former lobbying partner of Abramoff, was nominated by Bush in 2003 to become administrator for federal procurement policy--despite a lack of relevant professional experience. (Shades of Mike Brown!) Until his departure from the Bush administration last week, he’d been “working on developing contracting policies for the multibillion-dollar relief effort after Hurricane Katrina,” the Times reports.

Speaking of an absence of relevant career training, there’s also the matter of Julie Myers, whom the Bush White House is hoping to appoint as head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security, even though she boasts “little immigration or customs experience,” according to The Washington Post. Myers’ background includes work as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York; service as an associate under Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr; a brief stint as chief of staff to Michael Chertoff, when he was still leading the Justice Department’s criminal division before becoming Homeland Security secretary; and her role as assistant secretary for export enforcement at the Department of Commerce, which left her responsible for overseeing and sanctioning violations of “U.S dual-use export control laws.” Oh, and Myers just happens to be the niece of Air Force General Richard B. Myers, the departing Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and is married to Chertoff’s current chief of staff. David R. Mark, author of the blog JABBS, points out that as queen of ICE, “the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government,” Myers would be charged with tracking down money launderers and human traffickers, as well as enforcing U.S. immigration laws. Although she told a Senate hearing last Thursday that, if confirmed to the ICE posting, she would “seek to work with those who are knowledgeable in this area, who know more than I do,” at least one lawmaker wasn’t satisfied. Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said during the hearing: “I think that we ought to have a meeting with Mike Chertoff ... to ask him ... why he thinks you’re qualified for the job. Because based on your résumé, I don’t think you are.”

Qualifications do sometimes still matter, though. We dodged a bullet last week when the Food and Drug Administration apparently withdrew the appointment of Dr. Norris Alderson as acting head of its Office of Women’s Health, an agency that advocates on behalf of women’s issues and liaises with women’s health groups. Alderson is an “FDA veteran trained in animal husbandry who spent much of his career in the agency’s Center for Veterinary Medicine,” according to the Post. Again, somebody being promoted into a prominent administration post, despite a lack of appropriate background or training.

ADDENDUM I: Although FEMA has been on the receiving end of the greatest quantity of press and political criticisms lately, Kevin Drum of the Political Animal blog speculates that more Bush agencies are likely to fall victim to this administration’s poisonous combination of “commitment to cronyism ... [and] contempt for serious policy development.” Drum asks: “[W]here are we likely to see the next serious federal meltdown? The Treasury Department seems like a good guess, especially because its decline is so obvious that it has united both liberals and conservatives in consternation.”

ADDENDUM II: After David Safavian’s arrest, another participant in Abramoff’s 2002 golf excursion to Scotland, Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, may have reason to worry for his own political future. The Raw Story is on top of the story.

READ MORE:Aide Was Reticent on Lobbying for Foreign Clients,” by Susan Schmidt and R. Jeffrey Smith (The Washington Post); “The Stakeout: David Safavian Special Edition,” by Mike Disharoon (The Stakeholder); “Now With 50% More Cronyness!” (Ezra Klein); “Restoring Honor and Integrity, the Bush Administration Way,” by Tim Grieve (Salon).

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