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Project on Government Oversight

Katrina Contractor Named FEMA Chief Of Staff: Revolving Door Poses Threats to Effective Management

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April 3, 2009

On March 4, 2009, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Jason R. McNamara will serve as the Chief of Staff for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  Mr. McNamara, a former FEMA program analyst, most recently served as a senior official in Dewberry's Emergency Management, Disaster and Mitigation Services Group. Dewberry is a construction and consulting firm that has received over $1.3 billion in DHS contracts since 2000 – many of which were FEMA Hurricane Katrina contracts. It is not clear whether the White House approved an ethics waiver to limit Mr. McNamara's ability to influence FEMA contracts for his old firm, but it appears that he is already working at FEMA.

The FEMA Chief of Staff directs the implementation of the FEMA Administrator's priorities and policies and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the agency. Many of Mr. McNamara's primary duties would impact Dewberry contracts with FEMA, and POGO is concerned that apparent conflicts of interest will hinder his ability to serve effectively.

Dewberry has significant contractual involvement with FEMA's mitigation and disaster response and recovery operations that are central to the agency's operation during disasters. While at Dewberry, according to the DHS press release, Mr. McNamara focused on "emergency management and homeland security preparedness, planning, interagency and intergovernmental relations, and congressional relations on the local, state, and federal governmental levels." According to other reports, Mr. McNamara also served on President Obama's Homeland Security advisory panel and has worked as a staffer on the Hill.

"Certainly Mr. McNamara appears qualified and Dewberry seems to have a clean record, but the potential conflicts that exist with Dewberry and its many affiliates are genuine. How can he effectively represent taxpayers when he has to recuse himself from a bulk of his job?" asked POGO's General Counsel Scott Amey.

President Obama's Executive Order (EO 13490) states that Mr. McNamara cannot "for a period of 2 years from the date of [his] appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to [his] former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts." Other federal laws and regulations might raise additional financial conflict of interest restrictions.

Mr. McNamara will likely have to recuse himself from many projects at FEMA because Dewberry is working both inside FEMA offices and operating in the field as a prime contractor or a subcontractor, and is a party in numerous joint ventures, including PaRR and the Nationwide Infrastructure Support Technical Assistance Consultants (NISTAC).

Accordingly, Mr. McNamara would be restricted from working on any FEMA actions, including contracting decisions, related to Dewberry or its affiliates and from any activities that involve disaster and emergency planning involving Dewberry. "Is it wise to have a key senior manager who is conflicted from acting on major disaster decisions because of his prior contractor role?  With FEMA's history of well-publicized questionable Katrina decisions, why would DHS and FEMA invite more controversy and put a former official from one of its prime contractors in charge of its operations?" questioned Amey. 

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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