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Originally published Saturday, September 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Local FEMA chief had little disaster experience

John Pennington, the official in charge of federal disaster response in the Northwest, was a four-term Republican state representative who...

Seattle Times staff reporters

John Pennington, the official in charge of federal disaster response in the Northwest, was a four-term Republican state representative who ran a mom-and-pop coffee company in Cowlitz County when then-Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn helped him get his federal post.

Before he was appointed regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Pennington got a degree from a correspondence school that government investigators later described as a "diploma mill."

Pennington, 38, says he worked for his degree and he is qualified for the FEMA job.

FEMA and the qualifications of its managers have come under fire in recent days as the government's response to Hurricane Katrina has been heavily criticized. Yesterday, FEMA Director Michael Brown was removed as commander of hurricane-relief efforts in Louisiana and ordered back to Washington, D.C.

Professional emergency managers have criticized FEMA for the lack of experience of some of its key administrators. One of the harshest critics has been King County Emergency Services Director Eric Holdeman.

"It's important that you be a professional emergency manager," he said. "Walking through an emergency room doesn't make you a doctor. Likewise, you want the people overseeing a disaster to know what it's all about."

To Pennington's credit, Holdeman said, the regional director has surrounded himself with a competent staff. Pennington's deputy director, Tammy Doherty, is a career emergency manager.

$138,000 salary

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush appointed Pennington to head the Region 10 office of FEMA, overseeing the government's disaster response in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho. He makes $138,000 a year.

Just before his appointment, Pennington received a bachelor's degree in business administration from California Coast University in Santa Ana, Calif., which at the time was an unaccredited correspondence school.

The school is now accredited.

In testimony before Congress last year, investigators for the General Accounting Office identified California Coast as a diploma mill.

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The investigators were looking into California Coast and two other unaccredited schools that got $169,000 in taxpayer money to pay the tuition of 463 federal employees who enrolled as students.

That investigation did not involve Pennington, who received his degree before his FEMA appointment and paid for it himself. But GAO special agent Paul DeSaulniers told The Seattle Times this week that his investigation showed that California Coast University sold degrees for a flat fee.

California Coast obtained its federally recognized accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council only this past January, according to council Assistant Director Sally Welch.

"It was a pretty questionable school for a lot of years," she said. "They had to make a lot of changes."

Pennington said he knew California Coast was an unaccredited school when he enrolled in 1998 to fulfill a dream of getting a college education.

His parents were too poor to put him through school, he said, and he had to forgo a ROTC scholarship to Vanderbilt in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn., because of illness.

California Coast "fit my needs," Pennington said. "I've got a stack 2 feet high of tests and notes and study guides" as proof that he completed course work for his degree.

"I was not looking to build my credentials," he said. "I worked hard to do what was best for me."

Pennington's biography, posted and updated frequently on FEMA's Web site, originally noted that his degree came from California Coast. But later versions mention a bachelor's degree without listing the school. Pennington said yesterday he did not review any of those changes, which he said were made by his press staff.

Cowlitz County work

Pennington said he has had an interest in disaster management since the mid-1990s, when floods and landslides wreaked havoc in Cowlitz County, in southwest Washington.

"We had three federally declared disasters in three years," he said — floods in 1995 and '96, and a massive mudslide in Kelso in 1998.

The turning point for Pennington was the Kelso slide, which destroyed 141 structures. Initially, he said, FEMA had declined to designate the slide as a federal disaster. Pennington, then a two-term state representative, said he lobbied then-FEMA Director James Lee Witt and later President Clinton to have that decision overturned.

"I got an in-depth working knowledge of Region 10 in that process," he said.

Pennington said he did not seek the FEMA job, although he says he was interested in it. In 2000, he was the co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Cowlitz County, where Bush lost to Al Gore 49 percent to 46 percent.

Former GOP Rep. Dunn, who was Bush's 2000 campaign chairwoman in Washington, recalled that she called Pennington and asked him to fill out an application for the FEMA job. She was responsible for screening and making recommendations on all regional political appointments.

Dunn, who said she was unaware that Pennington's degree was obtained through correspondence courses, said she was "relieved" when he finally agreed to take the job. Pennington was selected from three finalists recommended by Dunn's office.

"He was a natural," she said.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com.

Times staff reporter Steve Miletich and researchers Gene Balk and David Turim contributed to this story.

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