Ethics Matters: Natural disasters
June marks the beginning of another busy summer for preparedness and disaster relief practitioners across the country. Every summer, hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. These threats have been magnified by the Trump administration’s lax attitude towards ethics.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s mission is to lead America in preparing for, preventing, responding to, and recovering from disasters. On June 6, at a FEMA briefing on the 2018 hurricane season, the president said that “[w]e are marshaling every available resource to ensure maximum preparation for rapid response.” Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s failure to abide by ethical norms has, in fact, made FEMA’s work more difficult.
Last July, the president nominated Daniel Craig, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, to serve as FEMA’s principal deputy administrator. The deputy administrator is the second-highest ranking official at FEMA and ensures the effective management of FEMA’s processes, particularly human resources. Craig was nominated several weeks after the 2017 hurricane season began and amid record-breaking wildfires in several states.
Under normal circumstances, the nominee for such a critical position at such a critical time would move forward swiftly through the Senate with bipartisan support. But Craig’s vetting and nomination by the White House was anything but normal.
Shortly after his nomination, Craig withdrew his name from consideration when reports surfaced that a 2011 federal investigation found that he falsified government travel and timekeeping records during the Bush administration. It is not clear whether the Trump administration consulted with investigators before the president nominated Craig to be deputy administrator. What is clear, is that the information in these reports was disqualifying.
Craig’s withdrawal was reported to the Senate on September 14, 2017, a couple of weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and days before Hurricane Maria made landfall on American soil. FEMA has remained without a permanent principal deputy for nearly a year since.
On the same day as Craig’s withdrawal, the Senate confirmed Daniel Kaniewski to oversee national preparedness at FEMA. If Craig had been confirmed, Kaniewski would be one of his direct reports. Instead, Kaniewski is doing both his own job leading FEMA’s insurance, mitigation, continuity, and grant programs, as well as performing the duties that should fall to the principal deputy administrator.
FEMA management has been subject to significant scrutiny following the agency’s uneven response to multiple natural disasters last summer. For example, Harvard University research found that more than 4,000 Americans died in Puerto Rico for reasons related to Hurricane Maria, undermining the president’s prior claims. In May, the White House deflected blame from FEMA management, just as it deflected responsibility for its poor vetting of Daniel Craig’s ethical misconduct when questions arose last year.
Ethics rules are not just about ensuring the public has confidence in its government. They also help to ensure that the government operates effectively to help those in need. The Trump administration either knew and didn’t care, or simply didn’t care to know about Daniel Craig’s ethical problems before he was nominated to be FEMA’s principal deputy administrator. This vacancy continues to undermine FEMA’s management of America’s disaster preparedness and response.
On June 20, 2018, nearly 11 months after Craig’s nomination and nearly 18 months after taking the oath of office, the president nominated Peter Gaynor, to serve as FEMA’s permanent deputy director. This role remains critical to ensuring that FEMA can adequately support communities across the country as they prepare for and respond to natural disasters this summer and beyond. We can only hope that this time around, the Trump administration has performed sufficient due diligence to ensure that their nominee has the highest qualifications and ethical standards.