WASHINGTON – The White House scolded the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday for staging a phony news conference about assistance to victims of wildfires in southern California.
The agency — much maligned for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina over two years ago — arranged to have FEMA employees play the part of independent reporters Tuesday and ask questions of Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the agency's deputy director.
The questions were predictably soft and gratuitous.
"I'm very happy with FEMA's response," Johnson said in reply to one query from an agency employee.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said it was not appropriate that the questions were posed by agency staffers instead of reporters. FEMA was responsible for the "error in judgment," she said, adding that the White House did not know about it beforehand and did not condone it.
"FEMA has issued an apology, saying that they had an error in judgment when they were attempting to get out a lot of information to reporters, who were asking for answers to a variety of questions in regard to the wildfires in California," Perino said. "It's not something I would have condoned. And they — I'm sure — will not do it again."
She said the agency was just trying to provide information to the public, through the press, because there were so many questions.
"I don't think that there was any mal-intent," Perino said "It was just a bad way to handle it, and they know that."
FEMA gave real reporters only 15 minutes notice about Tuesday's news conference . But because there was so little advance notice, the agency made available an 800 number so reporters could call in. And many did, although it was a listen-only arrangement.
On Tuesday, FEMA employees had played the part of reporters. Johnson issued a statement Friday, saying that FEMA's goal was "to get information out as soon as possible, and in trying to do so we made an error in judgment."
"Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received," he said. "We can and must do better."
Officials at the Homeland Security Department, which includes FEMA, expressed their concern.
"This is simply inexcusable and offensive to the secretary that such a mistake could be made," Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said Friday, referring to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. "Stunts such as this will not be tolerated or repeated."
Keehner said senior leadership is considering whether a punishment is necessary.