The Nov. 9 Washington Post reported an internal investigation into a fake news conference staged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency during last month’s California wildfires found the agency’s press secretary directed aides to pose as reporters, secretly coached them during the briefing and ended the event after a final, scripted question was asked, according to a senior FEMA official.

Paulison called the impact on the agency’s credibility ‘devastating.’

FEMA chief R. David Paulison said that staffers should have known better, but the inquiry did not fully explain the fact that the news conference at FEMA’s Southwest Washington headquarters was announced only 15 minutes before it started, making it unlikely that reporters could attend. None did, and reporters listening on a telephone conference line were barred from asking questions.

In the press conference, the agency’s deputy administrator Harvey E. Johnson Jr., who was live on some cable news channels, praised FEMA’s response as far better than its reaction to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The review “found nothing that indicated malicious or preconceived intent to deceive the media or the public,” said FEMA’s acting director of external affairs, Russ Knocke, who conducted the inquiry. “As an aside, the content of the press event was accurate,” Knocke said Wednesday night. “It is obvious that there was a significant lack of leadership within FEMA external affairs.”

In an interview, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the agency’s press secretary, Aaron Walker, resigned at his request, effective Dec. 7 — but Walker said he did not apologize for his actions and said he had planned since September to leave FEMA to seek private-sector work in Utah. Paulison said he did not expect additional disciplinary action but would reorganize and retrain the agency’s 90-member external affairs staff.

Scheduling and Timing of the Press Conference; Staff Asked to “Spur Discussion”

According to the review, the agency’s then director of external affairs, John “Pat” Philbin, was told around 11:50 a.m. to hold a briefing that afternoon and instructed Walker minutes later to do so at 1 p.m., but there is no clear explanation for why that time was chosen. It was 12:43 p.m. before aides worked out details and notified reporters.

At 12:54 p.m., six minutes before the briefing was to start, Walker sent an e-mail telling members of the external affairs staff to be prepared to fill chairs and “to spur discussion” in the absence of reporters.

Walker specifically told Mike Widomski, deputy director of public affairs, which question to ask first and assigned press aide Ali Kirin to ask a sixth and final question. Off camera, Walker encouraged staff members in the room to continue asking questions, even as he pretended to cut off discussion, interjecting at one point, “Two more questions,” the FEMA official said.

The review concluded that Johnson, a retired Coast Guard vice admiral and FEMA’s deputy administrator, was “poorly served” by aides who rushed him into the news conference without explaining the circumstances.

Two career employees signed statements saying that Walker told them either that he told or planned to tell Johnson before the event that questions would be choreographed.

But Johnson told the investigation that “he does not recall being advised that staff would be asking questions.” Of four aides with Johnson before the briefing, three, including Walker, also said they also did not recall whether he was told. One said he clearly was not told, an anonymous FEMA official said.

“There is not a lot of consistency in terms of recollection of what was said, but it’s clear from everyone that there was not an adequate briefing,” the anonymous official said. “There was poor staff service of agency leadership.”

In an earlier statement, Johnson said FEMA’s intent was to provide information as soon as possible, and he apologized “for this error in judgment.”

Paulison, however, was more realistic. He called the impact on the agency’s credibility “devastating.” Perhaps this is the most accurate assessment of the situation.

The Future FEMA Policy

FEMA has announced it will give at least one hour’s notice of future news conferences, allow only reporters to ask questions and no longer bar reporters listening on teleconference lines from asking questions.

Isn’t this only common sense and shouldn’t that policy have been adhered to without this debacle having taken place?