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SEPTEMBER 19, 2005

Legal Brief

By now, the basic contours of Mike Brown's ascendancy to director of
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (fema) have come to light.
Journalists have uncovered that Brown had almost no relevant
experience for the position and got hired by fema because he was a
longtime friend of George W. Bush's close associate Joe Allbaugh.
The story being reported, in other words, is that Brown was a
lawyer who ended up with a crucial post in the Bush administration
because of rank cronyism.This is a well-known Washington narrative: hotshot lawyer gets
appointed to a high government office despite lacking the expertise
someone in the position ought to possess. For example, on September
6, The Washington Post fit the Brown scandal into this narrative in
a front-page story, saying that Brown has been "caricatured as the
failed head of an Arabian horse sporting group who was plucked from
obscurity to become President Bush's point man for the worst
natural disaster in U.S. history."

Yet, far from being a caricature, this description, if anything,
understates the absurdity of the situation. The real story of
Brown's meteoric rise from obscurity is far more disturbing, as
well as a good deal more farcical. It's clear that hiring Brown to
run fema was an act of gross recklessness, given his utter lack of
qualifications for the job. What's less clear is the answer to the
question of exactly what, given Brown's real biography, he is
qualified to do.

To understand the Mike Brown saga, one has to know something about
the intricacies of the legal profession, beginning with the status
of the law school he attended. Brown's biography on fema's website
reports that he's a graduate of the Oklahoma City University School
of Law. This is not, to put it charitably, a well-known
institution. For example, I've been a law professor for the past 15
years and have never heard of it. Of more relevance is the fact
that, until 2003, the school was not even a member of the
Association of American Law Schools (aals)--the organization that,
along with the American Bar Association, accredits the nation's law
schools. Most prospective law students won't even consider applying
to a non-aals law school unless they have no other option, because
many employers have a policy of not considering graduates of
non-aals institutions. So it's fair to say that Brown embarked on
his prospective legal career from the bottom of the profession's
hierarchy.

So what did Brown, who received his J.D. in 1981, do with his
non-aals law degree? In 1985, Brown joined the firm of Long, Ford,
Lester %amp% Brown in Enid, Oklahoma. When I spoke to one of its
former members, Andrew Lester (the firm no longer exists), he
recalled that Brown was with the firm for only "about 18 months."
Lester, who is a longtime friend of Brown, believes that Brown
spent most of his time in the first few years after law school
pursuing his own legal practice and representing the interests of a
prominent local family. Lester vigorously defended his friend's
overall abilities, as well as his qualifications for the fema
directorship, pointing out that fema had dealt with more than 100
federal emergencies during Brown's tenure. In any case, despite the
claim of Brown's fema biography that he practiced law for 20 years
prior to his 2001 appointment as fema's general counsel, it appears
that, by 1987, he had already more or less abandoned his nascent
legal career. From 1987 to 1990, Brown's resum includes being the
sacrificial lamb for the Oklahoma Republican Party in a 1988
congressional election, in which he won 27 percent of the vote
against the incumbent Democrat, and stints as an assistant city
manager and city councilman in Edmond, Oklahoma. (According to fema,
because of these positions, "Mike Brown has a lot of experience
managing people.") By 1991, he had moved to Colorado, where he
became commissioner of judges and stewards for the International
Arabian Horse Association (iaha). This position, which never made
his fema bio, was Brown's full-time job from 1991 to 2001, and it
had nothing to do with the practice of law.

Brown's job was to make sure that horse show judges followed the
rules, and his enthusiasm for their strict enforcement won him the
nickname of "the czar," as well as the enmity of contestants, some
of whom sued the Association, as well as Brown himself. According
to a September 6 Denver Post article, Brown became embroiled in
controversy when allegations were made that, to help pay his legal
fees, Brown solicited a nearly $50,000 contribution from an iaha
member whose conduct he was supposed to regulate. Lester, who
represented Brown in the iaha's suits, told me that this was a
misunderstanding, due in part to the iaha's initial unwillingness
to fulfill its contractual obligation to cover Brown's legal costs.
"People are focusing on these attacks made against him when he was
with the iaha," Lester says, rather than looking at the work that
Brown had actually done at fema. Brown resigned from his position in
2001 under pressure, and the iaha was reorganized as the Arabian
Horse Association.

What, then, are we to make of the claim in Brown's fema biography
that, prior to joining the Agency, he had spent most of his
professional career practicing law in Colorado? Normally, an
attorney practicing law in a state for ten years would have left a
record of his experience in public documents. But just about the
only evidence of Brown's Colorado legal career is the Web page he
submitted to Findlaw.com, an Internet site for people seeking legal
representation. There, he lists himself as a member of the
"International Arabian Horse Association Legal Dept." and claims to
be competent to practice law across a dizzying spectrum of
specialties--estate planning, family law, employment law for both
plaintiffs and defendants, real-estate law, sports law, labor law,
and legislative practice. With all this expertise, it's all the
more striking that one can't find any other evidence of Brown's
legal career in Colorado.

So what legal work did Mike Brown perform before his stunning
reversal of fortune? According to his fema biography, "[H]e served
as a bar examiner on ethics and professional responsibility for the
Oklahoma Supreme Court and as a hearing examiner for the Colorado
Supreme Court." Translation: In Oklahoma, he graded answers to bar
exam questions, and, in Colorado, he volunteered to serve on the
local attorney disciplinary board.

When Brown left the iaha four years ago, he was, among other things,
a failed former lawyer--a man with a 20-year-old degree from a
semi-accredited law school who hadn't attempted to practice law in
a serious way in nearly 15 years and who had just been forced out
of his job in the wake of charges of impropriety. At this point in
his life, returning to his long-abandoned legal career would have
been very difficult in the competitive Colorado legal market. Yet,
within months of leaving the iaha, he was handed one of the top
legal positions in the entire federal government: general counsel
for a major federal agency. A year later, he was made its
number-two official, and, a year after that, Bush appointed him
director of fema.

It's bad enough when attorneys are named to government jobs for
which their careers, no matter how distinguished, don't qualify
them. But Brown wasn't a distinguished lawyer: He was hardly a
lawyer at all. When he left the iaha, he was a 47-year-old with a
very thin resum and no job. Yet he was also what's known in the
Mafia as a "connected guy." That such a person could end up in one
of the federal government's most important positions tells you all
you need to know about how the Bush administration works--or,
rather, doesn't.

By Paul Campos

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