Saturday, July 10, 2010

Profiles-The General Counsels--George W. Watson

Corrected version: George W. Watson came to FEMA as part of the OMB determination order from the General Counsel's staff of DCPA in July 1979. George was a very competent lawyer specializing in grant law at DCPA and trained at the University of Michigan Law School post WWII. He was part of the Navy's V-12 program which based on IQ testing of all naval recruits including draftees designated these MEN for college programs since the bulk of the colleges and University ranks had been decimated for the draft. The WWII planning was for a fifteen year war and college graduates needed to be restocked for the future officer corps. The top 2% by IQ were as a result sent to college by the Navy. George went to college in Tennessee. Because of the end of the war he never saw combat service but was commissioned. He has however kept his interest in sailing his entire wife. Oddly perhaps he met his future wife at the University of Michigan where she was that rarity in the 40's a woman in law school. She dropped out and eventually they had five children. I last saw George and his wife in Bethany Beach Delaware where they had retired in the late 1990's and after I had retired in 1999. I had both a call and e-mails from George since posting this item originally and will make more changes when time allows. He seems a very sprightly George Watson, young sounding at 84 and he has sent me some corrections to this blog. Unfortunately, George's dear wife Ruth died about 4 years ago. George tells me he is still sailing on the Chesapeake Bay from time to time.
George had briefly left the Office of the General Counsel (permanently I thought)after long service as the Associate General Counsel for General Law and then returned in 1985 as the head of the Program Law Division. Spence had no deputy general counsel but in reality George was the deputy throughout Sp[ence's tenure. When Spence had a breakdown in February 1988 George became his acting replacement as GC and I believe was actually named a career deputy General Counsel at his same GS-15 rank. Like me, George never joined the exalted ranks of the Career SES cadre. Althugh I understand he only was kept out of the SES by the George H.W. Bush Administration converting the GC job to a political appointee position. Still he served ably from February 1988 until 1991 as the Acting General Counsel of FEMA. Strangely because we were often rivals for the affection of the permanent GC's, and were of equivalent rank in the civil service for his entire career, George made me the de facto but not de jure Deputy GC during much of his tenure. I was allowed input but not necessarily final say on the entire gamut of OGC issues and policies. He did not always listen to me but he certainly allowed my input quite respectfully. Technically for the first year after he was made deputy I was the Acting Program Law Division Associate GC and was replaced permanently in that job by H.Joseph Flynn, a brilliant technician and writer who reflected ably the undergraduate and law degrees he held from Georgetown University. Joe served as the Program Associate until his retirement in the mid 90's.

Okay so why is an Acting General Counsel of importance. First he served as the Acting GC when the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act was in its final throes of passage and enactment. That statute was enacted in November 1988. After the election it might be noted. George also presided over the drafting and issuance of EO 12656 which replaced old EO 11490 [1969] in November 1988. Additionally George cooperated with General Becton's efforts to define FEMA's mission and determine its real capability in response and recovery. Perhaps most significant, George presided over the very complex and difficult administrative cases of Shoreham and Seabrook and helped the agency escape destruction over those matters.

George and I often had significant disagreements but at least usually resolved them amicably. Perhaps the most important decision he issued involved the EXXON VALDEZ oil spill a position I have discussed in the January 2009 letter to the Editor of the Natural Hazards Observer.

George actually tried to resolve the issues of whether FEMA was a cooperate and collaborate agency or in fact the safety net when other agencies failed to do their statutory assignments in various crisis. The fact that that issue still permeates the roles of FEMA and DHS should not detract from the skill and effort George put into that issue.

Because George was at the end a re-employed annuitant his clout was somewhat limited during his final service as Acting GC. Nonetheless he served faithfully until Ms. Kerry Newman, a non-career GM-15, who became the permanent Deputy GC in June 1990, and was Acting GC until followed by the arrival of Patricia Gormley in August or September. Of the GC's of FEMA in the 80's George was by far the most intelligent and competent. The weird thing about being a government lawyer is that in reality there are no clients except the American people, and in an agency those you serve usually cannot fire you at the career level, nor can you fire them. George's tenure demonstrated clearly how a General Counsel statutory scheme is probably just as necessary as for CIO, CFO's and IGs.