01 July 2010

BP Enlists Washington Elite to aid with Image Management

USA Today

WASHINGTON — James Lee Witt, the former FEMA director who built his reputation responding to disasters, is poised to become the latest big name on a team of Washington insiders that BP has amassed to help it respond to the Gulf Coast oil spill, rescue its reputation and protect itself from lawsuits.

The list, which includes several prominent Democrats now working on behalf of a company responsible for the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history, is causing some unease — even in a city where power and influence are wielded and traded with ease.

The company is "hoping to buy a little extra credibility with Washington government officials and regulators, and these people have credibility and BP has very little credibility," says Melanie Sloan of the non-profit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Sloan says she can "understand why people feel troubled by it" but it's simply "the way Washington operates."

BP Managing Director Bob Dudley says the company is asking Witt, who presided over the government's response to more than 350 disasters in the 1990s, to conduct "an independent overview" of BP's spill response.

Once he finalizes a contract, Witt will join other power brokers including Jamie Gorelick, a former Clinton administration Justice Department official and 9/11 commissioner, and Tony Podesta, lobbyist extraordinaire and brother of former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta. Gorelick, a lawyer, helped BP broker a deal with the White House to set aside $20 billion for those harmed by the Gulf Coast spill.

Witt, who was named to run FEMA by then-president Clinton in 1993, was the first FEMA chief to be given the rank of a Cabinet member after he turned the ineffective bureaucracy into a nimble disaster-response agency.

He now runs his own emergency management consulting company, working for states, cities and private companies looking to improve their emergency-response plans. Nearly five years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, he is still helping Louisiana with long-term recovery efforts.

Like most big companies that are subject to government regulations, BP has been represented by various Washington law, lobbying and public relations firms for years. Those include Gorelick's law firm, WilmerHale, and the Duberstein Group, a prominent lobbying shop run by former Reagan White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein.

"We've got nothing else to add," BP spokesman Robert Wine said when asked about the talent the company has gathered while oil continues to gush from its undersea well.

Many of those now working for BP also won't talk publicly about the work they're doing:

• Podesta, responding to an e-mail asking for comment, said he would not "talk for BP."

• Hilary Rosen, a former Capitol Hill staffer who worked for several Democratic lawmakers, also wouldn't discuss her work for the company as a partner with the London-based Brunswick Group public relations firm.

• Gorelick would say only that she is "assisting the company in responding to congressional inquiries and inquiries from executive branch agencies." So far, that amounts to 170 requests for information and/or testimony from 20 committees and agencies, she said. In one month since the spill began on April 20, there were 10 congressional hearings, including three in one day with two BP executives as witnesses.

• The Duberstein Group said Michael Berman, a onetime aide to former vice president Walter Mondale who is handling the BP account, was traveling and unavailable for comment.

Some watchdog groups say it's alarming that so many Democrats are to be paid by BP.

"Do these people go to bed at night and think, 'I hope I get to wake up in the morning and represent a corporate criminal?' " asks Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, which has called for a BP boycott.

BP's ability to scoop up so much talent is evidence that "Washington is broken," he says. "The former insiders are the most powerful and effective advocates for the wrongdoers because they have their own personal credibility they're trading on and they understand how the system works."

Some longtime Democrats, however, say having some of their own on the inside will work to the greater good.

"This is an enormous challenge and it doesn't matter who they hire to contain the spill, clean up the mess and compensate those who have lost so much," says veteran Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, a New Orleans native who has relatives who have been affected by the spill and filed claims with BP.

"Like Republicans, Democrats are ready to help with this project," she said. "I sincerely doubt any of my friends on both sides of the partisan divide will take this on without knowing we expect BP to 'get it right.' "

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