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FEMA director lashes staff for fake news conference

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Memo: FEMA director lashes staff for staging fake news conference
  • NEW: Conference was "breach of ethical practice that tore" agency's credibility
  • FEMA director says staged news conference "won't happen again"
  • Former external affairs chief for FEMA loses new job
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From Jeanne Meserve
CNN Washington bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In an internal memo obtained Monday by CNN, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief David Paulison rips the agency's public affairs staff for a staged news conference in which staff members posed questions to FEMA's No. 2 official, Harvey Johnson.

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Pat Philbin won't be taking over as head of public relations for the director of national intelligence.

Paulison said the entire episode "represented egregious decision-making" by the director of external affairs for FEMA, Pat Philbin, and his staff, who, he said, "lost perspective of the core imperative that they preserve the credibility of our agency."

Philbin was scheduled to become director of public affairs for the director of national intelligence -- a job National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said Philbin will not be doing.

It was not immediately clear whether Philbin offered his resignation or was fired just as he was set to begin the job.

"Their actions represented a breach of ethical practice that tore at the credibility of FEMA, the deputy administrator and that of their own office," Paulison wrote in his memo. "I do not condone their actions, no matter how well-intended, and have conveyed my displeasure directly through formal reprimand and admonishment to those involved." Video Watch what happened at FEMA's fake news conference »

Paulison said reporters were given only 15 minutes notice for the news conference, held last Tuesday after the agency received a number of media queries about its response to the California wildfires. When reporters did not show up on time, staffers asked the questions -- and reporters, who had been given a phone number to call in to the conference, could only listen.

"Inadequate notice is not acceptable," Paulison said in his memo, and setting up a "listen only" conference call for reporters was "inappropriate."

"Under no circumstances is it appropriate for FEMA employees to pose questions during a FEMA press event," he wrote.

He added, "I am extremely displeased by what transpired and will make the necessary changes in order to regain confidence and credibility in the eyes of the people we serve."

In a telephone call to CNN earlier Monday, Paulison said Philbin sent him an e-mail in which he took full responsibility for the incident.

Paulison said the events were "not acceptable," adding that not allowing reporters on the telephone to ask questions was "ridiculous."

"I am calling to apologize and say it will not happen again," he said.

He said "the rules are changing" to prevent any recurrence. Reporters will now be given at least an hour's warning before a press conference and reporters calling in will be able to ask questions in the future, he said.

FEMA got generally high marks for its response to the California wildfires, but Paulison said he was sure the press conference flap has had a bad effect on morale.

"The last two years of planning for a major disaster fell in place. ... Things were working as they were supposed to ... and that just killed everything you tried to have happen," he said.

Johnson, a retired admiral who fielded the staged questions at the news conference, "really didn't have an awareness" of what was taking place, Paulison said. He said Johnson was not familiar with all the people working in the press office and did not recognize that they were the ones asking questions.

"He just feels sick about it," said Paulison. "He feels his credibility has been hurt."

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However, reporters noted that Johnson called on at least one person by name.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, will be moving over to the FEMA press operation temporarily to complete an investigation into the news conference incident and find a replacement for Philbin. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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