The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.
A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency's lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.
On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency's Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."
And somebody please explain to me what's wrong with lawyers who work for the government. There seems to be this belief going around among some of them (see the OLC, U.S. attorneys, prosecutors at Guantanamo Bay, etc.) that the government is their client, and zealous advocacy requires them to engage in whatever immoral or ethically shady behavior is necessary to protect their client. They're wrong. They work for the American people, just like everyone else who works for the government. Their clients were the people in those trailers, and the FEMA lawyers who wrote these emails ought to be forced to resign or disbarred for ever thinking otherwise. And anyway, stonewalling isn't effective advocacy. Admitting that you did something wrong doesn't expose you to legal liability...doing something wrong does, and you pretty much have to be an idiot to think this sort of thing won't see the light of day at some point. A smart lawyer would have realized that if you clean up this mess, less people get sick, and it costs you less money in the long run...though I suppose their bosses didn't want to hear that.