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COUNTY HIRES FEMA EX-CHIEF WITT TO TRY TO RECOVER $95 MILLION IN `94 EARTHQUAKE CLAIMS.

Byline: Lisa Friedman Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Los Angeles County has hired former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt's lobbying firm to help recover $95 million in nearly 10-year-old Northridge Earthquake claims.

As part of Witt's $75,000 contract, he will be pushing the agency to accept the county's request for time extensions to complete repair work for 11 buildings damaged during the Jan. 17, 1994, quake.

FEMA officials have denied that extension - a decision that Los Angeles County Counsel Lloyd Pellman and Principal Deputy County Counsel Karen Lichtenberg blasted as ``draconian,'' ``myopic'' and ``Marie Antoinette-inspired'' in a recent appeal letter.

County officials maintain that they deserve an extension because lawsuits against private insurers have dragged out, making it difficult for them to determine how much reimbursement to expect from FEMA.

``Because of his (Witt's) years of experience in this field of disaster management and related activities, he is certainly in a strong position, the county believes, to make that argument,'' said Reginald Todd, the county's chief legislative advocate in Washington, D.C.

Witt is president of the District of Columbia consulting firm James Lee Witt Associates LLC.

He was FEMA director under President Clinton from 1993 to 2001, leading the agency through more than 348 presidential-declared disasters during his tenure. The Northridge Earthquake, which caused more than $21 billion in property damage, was the biggest and costliest.

In federally declared natural disasters, FEMA reimburses state and local governments for damages not covered by insurance. The county is still awaiting $500 million worth of repairs to 11 buildings, including the Pasadena Superior Court and the central jail parking structure.

County officials maintain that they aren't making the repairs because they are still involved in litigation against private insurers. Until that ends, they say, the county won't know how much reimbursement to expect from FEMA and therefore asked for an extension to complete the work.

The agency, in turn, maintains that it denied the extension because ``there was nothing particularly unique or unanticipated about delays in reaching an insurance settlement.''

In halting construction indefinitely, the county knew it risked missing the federal government's deadline and in fact it did so, a FEMA spokeswoman said.

In a scathing and often sarcastic appeal filed in May, Pellman and Lichtenberg said a FEMA official denied the request out of a ``purely bureaucratic desire to achieve his 'closeout goals.'

``The county could find $500 million by closing more hospitals, clinics and jails and further reducing welfare benefits to the indigent who fail to qualify for any federal benefits in the midst of an economic recession so that FEMA could achieve its goal of closing its books,'' Pellman and Lichtenberg wrote.

A decision on the appeal is expected Aug. 22.

Witt's contract with the county runs through June 30, 2004.

Lisa Friedman, (202) 662-8731

lisa.friedman(at)langnews.com

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James Lee Witt, FEMA director from 1993 to 2001, will try to free $95 million owed to the county from the 1994 earthquake.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jul 26, 2003
Words:501
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