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FEMA scolded for staging phony news conference

WASHINGTON - The White House scolded the Federal Emergency Management Agency yesterday for staging a phony news conference about assistance to victims of wildfires in Southern California.

The agency, much criticized for its response after Hurricane Katrina more than two years ago, arranged to have FEMA employees play the part of independent reporters Tuesday and ask questions of Vice Admiral Harvey E. Johnson, the agency's deputy director.

The questions were predictably soft and gratuitous.

"I'm very happy with FEMA's response," Johnson said in reply to one query from an agency employee. The Washington Post first reported on the fake news conference yesterday.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said it was not appropriate that the questions were posed by agency staff members instead of reporters. FEMA was responsible for the "error in judgment," she said, adding that the White House did not know about it beforehand and did not condone it.

"FEMA has issued an apology, saying that they had an error in judgment when they were attempting to get out a lot of information to reporters, who were asking for answers to a variety of questions in regard to the wildfires in California," Perino said. "It's not something I would have condoned. And they - I'm sure - will not do it again."

She said the agency was just trying to provide information to the public, through the news media, because there were so many questions.

"I don't think that there was any mal-intent," Perino said. "It was just a bad way to handle it, and they know that."

FEMA gave reporters only 15 minutes' notice about Tuesday's news conference. No reporter attended the news conference in person, agency spokesman Aaron Walker said. The agency made available an 800 number so reporters could call in and listen to the news conference, but not ask questions.

With no reporters on hand and an agency video camera providing a feed carried live by some TV networks, FEMA employees posed questions for Johnson that included: "Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?"

Johnson also said the agency had the benefit of "good leadership" and other factors, "none of which were present at Katrina." FEMA's administrator during Katrina, Michael Brown, resigned amid criticism over his handling of the disaster.

FEMA is reviewing its press procedures and will make changes to ensure they are "straightforward and transparent," Johnson said yesterday.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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