In the aftermath of just about any natural disaster, especially deadly hurricanes, the headlines eventually shift toward critiques of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Right or wrong, the public looks at the response by the organization with a very critical eye, so it really doesn’t help when someone on your team creates a PR crisis in the middle of a natural disaster.
Unfortunately for FEMA, the current FEMA chief, Brock Long, is staring down the barrel of a potential criminal probe connected with the use of government vehicles for what some have described as “personal travel.” Since news of that potential scandal hit, at least one top FEMA official, John Veatch, has been suspended.
While the hammer has yet to drop on Long, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General is investigating allegations that Long used government transportation for trips back and forth to Washington, D.C., but not on FEMA business. At this point, according to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Attorney’s office is currently weighing possible prosecution.
And that’s just the beginning of the bad news for Long, whose agency is currently working to help communities along the Atlantic coast devastated by Hurricane Florence. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, Trey Gowdy, is demanding all the details of the allegations against Long.
It’s hard to imaging worse timing, either for Long or for FEMA. The organization really needs to be wholly focused on disaster relief at the moment, and it can ill afford either legal distractions or public relations trouble when trying to effectively manage disaster response. As the relief effort is ongoing, it seems unlikely that Long’s job would be in jeopardy, but his job performance certainly will not be properly focused, despite Long’s assurances that he is totally concentrating on mitigating the impact of Florence.
For Long, even with everything he has on his plate at the moment, the ongoing investigation and potential legal action looms. There are reports trickling out day-by-day, which claim he used government vehicles for recreational trips, for long-weekend visits with out of town family, and hotels stays for his staff, all at taxpayer expense.
Long doesn’t necessarily dispute these actions, however, he does have a counter-narrative. FEMA says Long’s position and responsibilities mean that he must be accessible 24-7, and that traveling in a government vehicle helps make that possible. That argument seems reasonable on the surface, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether or not the use of those vehicles is actually legal or not.
Currently, Long enjoys the enthusiastic support of a large contingent of FEMA employees, and the public is more focused on the disaster response than the potential legal issues, at least for now. But that may change as the news cycles shift.