Probe of FEMA Chief Brock Long Referred to Prosecutors

An investigation targeting President Trump’s top emergency-management official has been referred to federal prosecutors to determine whether criminal charges should be pursued, according to people familiar with the probe.

Source: WSJ - Michael G. Bender | Published on September 18, 2018

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Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and two other federal employees may have broken as many as six laws as they commuted frequently between Washington and Mr. Long’s home in Hickory, N.C., at taxpayers’ expense, said one of the people briefed on the investigation.

Mr. Long has said he is cooperating with the investigation, which has been led by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. Mr. Long declined to comment through a FEMA spokesman.

The inspector general’s office and U.S. attorney’s office in Washington also declined to comment. A White House spokesman didn’t return a request for comment.

On Monday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.) asked Mr. Long for documents related to each of his trips home and any communications with FEMA employees who traveled with him.

During one of those trips, a federal employee was driving a government vehicle that was involved in an accident, the people familiar with the probe said. The driver didn’t properly report the accident, and is included in the inspector general’s referral to the U.S. attorney’s office, one of the people said.

Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, ethics lawyers for former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively, said there are strict federal laws when it comes to commuting because it has long been one of the most common ways to abuse government resources.

“It’s simply too tempting to use government resources for personal commuting,” Mr. Eisen said.

Top White House officials considered removing Mr. Long from his job after learning about the preliminary findings from the inspector general’s investigation, the Journal reported on Friday. Those deliberations took place as Hurricane Florence was forming in the Atlantic, and the pending storm was a key reason Mr. Long was kept in place, according to people familiar with those talks.

Still, White House officials have started discussions about potential successors, a senior White House official said.

Investigators told administration officials that Mr. Long was informed by DHS attorneys last year that his trips home violated the law, the people said. Mr. Long often left Washington on Thursdays for the 400-mile trip in a caravan of government-owned vehicles with federal employees, who stayed in nearby hotels for the long weekend, the people said.

When the trips home continued, the inspector general’s office put Mr. Long under surveillance and tailed him back to North Carolina, the people said. Mr. Long has spent about 150 days in North Carolina since he took over the job in June 2017, including weekends and time off, the people said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had discussed the alleged improper use of vehicles with Mr. Long, and told him he ought to resign if the matter was true. Mr. Long told NBC that he was never asked to resign.

The inspector general is also reviewing communications between Mr. Long and a FEMA contractor that appear to include discussions about future employment, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

Mr. Long told CBS on Sunday that he was authorized to travel home with government assistance based on presidential preparedness directive 40, which orders the FEMA administrator to, effectively, ensure the continuation of federal government services at all times.

Mr. Long said that the government vehicles he used to commute guaranteed he would have access to secure communications and suggested that others have traveled in a similar manner.

“FEMA has to make sure that the executive branch of government works on its worst day at any given time regardless of what we see,” Mr. Long told CBS. “I would never intentionally violate any rules, you know, that I was aware of.”

Former FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate said in an interview on Monday that he often drove home to Florida on his own and in his own vehicle. He had established multiple stops along the route that could accommodate secure communications, if needed.

“There are certain things that are just not practical for you to do as a FEMA administrator because of communications requirements,” said Mr. Fugate, who was appointed by President Obama. “Even if you’re on vacation you’ve got to have communication. So you don’t go on cruise ships.”