Joe Allbaugh, Disaster Pimp

“I don’t buy the ‘revolving door’ argument,’ said Bush’s former FEMA chief.

“Disaster-relief contracts going once … “

Writing in the Sept. 1 Washington Post, Dan Balz noted that in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Joe Allbaugh, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was in Louisiana “helping coordinate the private-sector response to the storm.” Readers who don’t know much about how Washington works probably took this to mean that an admirably selfless Allbaugh was giving generously of his time to help speed the rescue effort. There may, in fact, have been some of that. But Allbaugh is no mere dabbler in “the private-sector response” to government needs. He’s a lobbyist and a consultant who’s been cashing in on his close ties to President Bush since 2003. Allbaugh, in addition to being Bush’s first FEMA chief (Allbaugh’s college chum Michael Brown succeeded him), * was Bush’s chief of staff when he was governor of Texas and campaign manager to Bush during the 2000 election. Now Allbaugh is the man to see if you want a contract in Iraq, or a piece of the action on homeland security, or, apparently, a shot at rebuilding New Orleans. “I don’t buy the ‘revolving door’ argument,” Allbaugh told the National Journal last year. “This is America. We all have a right to make a living.”

As a former administration official, Allbaugh must follow certain rules meant to inhibit influence-peddling. These have never been terribly onerous, and the Bush administration last year made them less so. Federal law prohibits former government officials from ever attempting to influence the government on any matter in which they were directly involved while working for the government; it requires them to wait two years before they attempt to influence the government on any matter that was pending up to a year before their departure from government; and it requires senior personnel like Allbaugh to wait one year before they attempt to influence their former agency. No sweat! Allbaugh has been out of the government for two and a half years, and back when the one- and two-year restrictions still applied, the client always had the option to contact even FEMA through Allbaugh’s wife and lobbying partner Diane. Diane Allbaugh had the entrepreneurial vision to set up a lobbying business in Washington shortly before her husband’s boss was elected president—if you want to get technical, appointed president by the Rehnquist court—in 2000.

What, precisely, is the “private-sector response” that Allbaugh has been “coordinating” in New Orleans? Nobody seems to know. (Allbaugh hasn’t returned my phone call yet, but I expect he will; he’s famously accessible to reporters, which may help explain why his influence-peddling operation has received so little scrutiny.) Looking over the Allbaugh family client list, likely suspects include Kellog, Brown and Root (subsidiary to Halliburton), for whom both Allbaughs are lobbying to “[e]ducate the congressional and executive branch on defense, disaster relief [italics mine], and homeland security issues.” KBR has already been hired to help repair three Navy facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina, under a contract that predates its relationship with Allbaugh. Shaw Group International is similarly employing Allbaugh to “educate” the government on disaster relief—we should start calling the former FEMA chief “professor”!—and therefore seems another likely beneficiary of Allbaugh’s mission to Louisiana. But that’s just guesswork. No doubt Allbaugh is scaring up new clients even as I write.

In his early days as FEMA administrator, Allbaugh worried that the agency’s mission had “evolved into … an oversized entitlement program.” Now it’s Allbaugh himself who’s suckling from FEMA’s teat. Not to worry, though: It’s all in the name of stimulating the private sector. And also—I almost forgot—rebuilding New Orleans.

[Update, Sept. 10: Allbaugh never returned my phone call. He told both the New York Timesand the Washington Post that he does not secure government contracts for his clients. “A lot of people want to connect the dots, but the dots don’t exist,” Allbaugh told the Times today. “I don’t do federal contracts, end of story.” So what does he do? “I tell them how to best craft their pitch, to craft their technical expertise so everybody knows exactly what they do,” he told the Post. That’s right: KBR, which has been in the government-contracting business for a century, doesn’t know how to pitch its services to government officials!

The Times story went on to point out that Shaw (which is, as I suspected, one of the companies for whom Allbaugh is working in Louisiana) has Allbaugh advising it on how to “match the company’s efforts to those of the government agencies it serves.” It’s my understanding that when private companies undertake costly plans to “serve” the government, they’re usually paid for their troubles. Allbaugh further told both the Post and the Times that he advised a water-filtration client called UltraStrip Systems, Inc. that it should come down to Louisiana. Presumably it wasn’t to sample the jambalaya at Galatoire’s.That Allbaugh draws the line at marching into FEMA, contract in hand, and pushing it before the nose of a former employee does not mean that his former stewardship of the agency and his close relationship to President Bush aren’t felt when his clients show up in Washington.

I should note, in the interest of bipartisanship, that James Lee Witt, who was director of FEMA during the Clinton administration, is also a lobbyist, and is also working on behalf of corporate clients in Louisiana. A significant difference, though, is that Witt no longer has much political influence to sell, so he has to fall back on actual expertise in disaster recovery. (FEMA was a famously well-run agency  under his management.)

Correction, Oct. 3, 2005:An earlier version of this column, repeating an error in the Boston Herald, identified Michael Brown as Allbaugh’s college roommate. Brown and Allbaugh were friends in college, but not roommates. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)