With James Lee Witt set to annnounce his Democratic candidacy for 4th District Congress at 1 p.m., the Arkansas Republican Party distributed a question for reporters to ask about a subject we’ve mentioned before, an NBC report that Witt’s disaster management firm had profiteered in Hurricane Katrina cleanup work in Louisiana.
Said GOP Party Chair Doyle Webb in providing a link to the six-year-old NBC report:
“The last thing hardworking Arkansas families need in Washington is just another self-serving politician like James Lee Witt. Anyone who could stomach turning a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina into an opportunity to exploit victims for a profit does not deserve to represent this great state.”
It is always nice to get lessons on integrity from Doyle Webb, who ran into legal ethics trouble for handling an elderly woman’s estate, who was accused by a relative of mishandling his own mother’s estate and who has found himself in financial troubles as a Benton real estate investor and on property tax payment. It is also a touch ironic to have disaster relief injected into a race where U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton has voted against disaster relief for storm-ravaged communities.
But, the record is the record. The unfriendly greeting will be no surprise to Witt. He’ll have to deal with it now and likely again. And again.On the jump you’ll find what he said at the time, information lacking from the NBC report:
UPDATE: Witt held his conference call. He made a brief statement about his intentions to file formal papers this week. He said he’d have a more formal announcement later that would include more of a fleshed out platform. He touted his record in serving people in disasters and he said no place he could think of was more in need of disaster relief than Washington.
He said he didn’t intend to engage in name-calling and partisan bickering. So what about the Republican trashing of him? He said the rates his firm charged wiere approved by the GSA and FEMA, that all his work was competitively bid and audited to be sure “everything was done appropriately.”
Health care? He’d have voted against the Affordable Care Act had he been a member of the House at the time. He said the law needed changes and he looked forward to working on them, but declined to be more specific. He praised the “private option” version of Obamacare adopted in Arkansas as an example for other states to look at.
How long had he lived in Dardanelle? All his life, Witt, responded, and moved quickly through a series of family and church roots there. On the jump, too, is his prepared release.
WITT NEWS RELEASE IN 2007 ON NBC REPORT
As you know, tonight, NBC Nightly News aired a story about James Lee Witt Associates ‘ contract in Louisiana. They interviewed two people, a former subcontractor ‘s disgruntled employee and the Louisiana State Treasurer who has Gubernatorial aspirations. And frankly, the State Treasurer did not throw us under the bus.
See the detailed facts that rebut what was said in the story . We worked very hard to educate NBC about our work, but frankly, they had 10 words, by two people that they could make into a three minute story and they did a fine job of that. They did not examine the 70,000 pages of documents and put them in the context we provided to them, 6 months into their investigation, when they first talked to us on the record.
In an open and honest manner, we cooperated with NBC Investigations for almost a year providing them with over 70,000 pages of documents. At no time, would NBC Investigations have a meeting off camera with us and allow us to answer their questions or explain our business model, our State of Louisiana contract or subcontracts. Even with ethics rulings stating that there was no improper relationship between us and our subcontractors, NBC Investigations proceeded to air this story even when the premises of their story was false.
The facts are as follows:
Any state facing disasters the size and complexity of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita would need help from a qualified and experienced firm like James Lee Witt Associates to navigate Federal red tape and represent the interests of impacted communities in the face of thousands of FEMA and other Federal personnel. Prior to the hurricanes, Louiisian had only five staff trained to manage its responsibilities under the disaster assistance programs.
Because of the support provided by JLWA, the State of Louisiana was able to meet their responsibilities, moving an unprecedented $2.2 billion in recovery money to Louisiana communities in less than 18 months — an amount unmatched in any other disaster in United States history.
JLWA also helped Louisiana recruit and train local staff — who are now State employees — to build in-state capacity and reduce the State’s long-term costs of recovery.
JLWA brought qualified people to provide the debris monitoring services required by the State. At the time, only two firms in the country had the staff and capacity to service disasters the size of Katrina and Rita: PBS&J and RMI. Since PBS&J was fully engaged in Mississippi (and RMI had excess capacity still available), RMI was selected for the task.
A review of RMI’s corporate background by the State demonstrated that they were fully qualified to do the work asked of them. Because of the concern over appearances, however, JLWA identified the relationship between Mr. Merritt and his parents (who own RMI) early to the State, and even a review by the State Ethics Board deemed that the relationship was not improper in any way.
Louisiana has taken great steps to prevent fraud through monthly 100% audits by State auditors, which have identified no problems with JLWA’s work or billing practices.
JLWA is proud of its accomplishments in Louisiana . While we are a private company our costs have been reasonable
and without releasing propriety information,within the industry average and we have approached our work with the interest of the taxpayer in mind
This is not the standard to which we are used to seeing NBC News operate and we are strongly disappointed in airing a story which doesn’t tell the hard work and value that the State of Louisiana is getting for recovery work. In fact, NBC News ignored our efforts to inform them of the value when we provided them data spelling out that we are able to provide this service to the State of Louisiana at even lower rates than FEMA can provide the same service. We are able to provide this service at an average of $45 per hour lower than even the government could provide it and thus a savings to the taxpayer, which has always been paramount in our work ethic.
WITT CAMPAIGN NEWS RELEASE TODAY
Dardanelle, AR —Saying he is “running to make a difference, not a career,” former Yell County Judge and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director James Lee Witt today announced his candidacy for Arkansas’s 4th Congressional District.
“I’ve spent my adult life bringing people together at the toughest times of their lives. Nowhere in this country needs disaster relief management or consensus building more than Washington. We’re not going to solve the problems of the people from the 4th District with more partisan noise and name-calling. My approach is simple: if we’ve got a problem, let’s use our common-sense and do the hard work necessary to solve it,” said James Lee.
James Lee was born in Paris, AR, and grew up in Dardanelle where he still lives today. His parents were sharecroppers. James Lee married his high school sweetheart, the former Lea Ellen Hodges, and began a career in construction. In 1978, he was elected Yell County judge. After serving ten years, James Lee was appointed by then-Governor Clinton to head the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services.
In 1993, President Clinton appointed James Lee to become the director of the FEMA. There, Witt turned around the failing agency and came to be known as “one who brings order out of chaos.” During his eight years at FEMA, James Lee won admiration and trust from members of both parties and community leaders throughout the country.
After FEMA, James Lee founded a firm specializing in helping cities, towns, counties and states recover from disasters and built up his farm in Dardanelle.
Lea Ellen, James Lee’s wife of 51 years, lost a five-year battle with cancer in September. Their deep faith helped them through these very difficult times.
James Lee has two sons, Jimmy, also a former County Judge, and Michael, a vice president of Liberty Bank in Dardanelle. He has three grandsons, Carter, Parker and Jesse. James Lee and his family are lifelong members of First Baptist Church of Dardanelle.
“I will continue travelling throughout the District listening to people and discussing how a new voice can bring change and progress to Washington. Goodness knows we need it.”