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FEMA Head Under Scrutiny In Middle Of Hurricane Season


You've been hearing a lot about FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency tasked with helping Americans cope with disasters. Now, even as the agency has been battling Tropical Storm Florence, it's been in the grip of an internal power struggle. FEMA Administrator William Long, who's known as Brock, is being investigated for allegedly misusing government vehicles. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reportedly wishes to replace him, but that is alarming agency staff who fear a loss of experienced leadership in the middle of hurricane season. Washington Post national correspondent William Wan has been following this story. And he's with us now in our studios to tell us more about it. William Wan, thanks so much for joining us.

WILLIAM WAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, would you just tell us about these allegations? I mean, how did they come about? What's he being scrutinized for and why?

WAN: Sure. The allegations are over misuse of a government car to go home on weekends to visit his family. He has a wife and two young sons in North Carolina. But the thing that's at issue for a lot of FEMA staffers is the timing of this. Somebody at DHS leaked it - the news of this investigation, even though the investigation had been going on for months. They leaked it on Thursday. Florence made landfall on Friday. And so the timing of this is really concerning. You're kind of having a - "Game Of Thrones" political machinations going on in the middle of a hurricane just as you're entering hurricane - peak hurricane season.

MARTIN: Why are we so sure that this was leaked?

WAN: Because of the way it played out. It's been under investigation for months. We talked to a senior White House official. We talked to three, four high-level DHS and FEMA officials. DHS had people actually surveil and follow the director of FEMA over this issue of whether he's using a government car to get home, if there's a power struggle going on between Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of Homeland Security, and the FEMA director. And we talked to three or four current and former top officials, who say she has been trying to get rid of him for months. And so this is - her way of doing it is to use this investigation.

MARTIN: Why, in the estimation of the people who say that, would she want to replace him? And I also think his - what's his record?

WAN: You hear all sorts of reasons, you know? There's been a lot of finger-pointing about Hurricane Maria, especially in recent weeks. We talked to 14 different current and former top officials. That was never brought up. One thing that has come up is that there's him, who's under investigation. There's no No. 2 right now. Even two years into the Trump administration, no one's been confirmed. The No. 3 is a personal, very close friend of Nielsen. So there's a lot of speculation within the agency that this is maneuvering to get that person, whose name is Danny Kaniewski, into the top position.

MARTIN: And what is Long saying about all this? And what is Nielsen saying about all of this?

WAN: Sure. So Long has largely stayed out of the spotlight since this emerged. But on Thursday, at a media briefing, he said something to the fact that it's not in his DNA to do anything unethical. People speaking in support of him point out that, as FEMA director, one reason you would have a car like that with you, even going home, is because, as FEMA director, you're responsible for disasters 24/7. And so if something happens, you need secure communications, which is built into this type of suburban SUV, you know, a government-issued SUV.

And so I talked to some former FEMA directors who said that they had experience traveling in this car when they were going home. Some lived in Florida at the time, but they didn't travel as frequent as Brock Long did. And that's - one of the issues is is he - was be available enough to Nielsen. That's one of the criticisms that her camp has been kind of taking shots at.

MARTIN: And what is Nielsen saying about this? Has she responded to this battle, or whatever it is, becoming public?

WAN: Officials in her agency have denied that they're even trying to force out Long. And they've also said she's not maneuvering to get her friend, the No. 3 official, into that top spot. So they kind of issued blanket denials of that.

MARTIN: That's Washington Post national correspondent William Wan. William, thanks so much for talking with us.

WAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.