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FEMA Raid On County Raises Questions

  • When heavily-armed federals stage a raid on a local government, it's certainly an emergency, but one that was made by the federals themselves.

Back in 1996, there was flooding in the northwest. It being an election year, the federal government, represented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was on hand to alleviate the suffering of individuals and local governments alike. Sound bites filled the air and tax dollars changed hands while an incumbent president trolled for votes.

Now it's 1997, the election is over, Big Bill Clinton is back in the white House and FEMA is back in post flood areas -- with a vengeance. One of the flooded areas was Clearwater County in Idaho.

On July 19, heavily-armed FEMA agents, along with a contingent of state police, raided the Clearwater County Flood Control Command Center at Orofino, Idaho, in an action even Morrie Goodman, FEMA's communications director, labeled bizarre." He said he'd seen nothing like it before. Neither had the county workers, who were left shaken.

Opined the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington: "It's too early to say whether FEMA was conducting a fishing expedition, as Clearwater County Commissioner Bud Bonner claimed, or a search prompted by clear signs of criminal activity...(but)...Clearly, FEMA could have conducted itself differently."

It even brought Ruby Ridge and the massacre of Randy Weaver's family by federal agents to the minds of the Spokesman-Review editorial staff.

Armed feds pried open crates with crowbars and drove away with two vans and a station wagon loaded with documents.


The raid began at 7 am when a woman working at the courthouse was told members of FEMA had a search warrant for the basement office. County Commission Chairman Earl Pickett, who arrived about 30 minutes later, said the agents would not tell him specifically why the office was being searched, only that they were looking for evidence of "possible criminal intent to defraud the government.'

Several employees were handed subpoenas to a grand jury meeting in Boise this month. Pickett said the flood records have always been open and available to FEMA ant the state Bureau of Disaster Services. The raid on the office was "unnecessary," he said.

"I felt intimidated by their tactics. It was more or less 'get out of my way. I'm in charge here,'" the commission chairman told reporters. He said that, "We have some crates...full of blankets in case they're needed in a disaster and they're prying the lids off the boxes as if we had something hidden in there."

Pickett described FEMA rules for use of federal disaster funds as "confusing," and said that the commission had asked for the rules and regulations in writing and not verbally, but had not received any, According to local press reports, when much of the money was coming into the county, the commissioners repeatedly asked for the guidelines in writing and were told it was still in draft form.


Clearwater received a reported "several million" dollars in disaster relief funds and a check for $506,000 had just been received.

In a public statement, the commissioners said that, "because the affidavit in support of this warrant is sealed pending the investigation, we do not know the accusations or what acts precipitated federal action."

The board explained that from the beginning of the 1996 flood disaster, flood records "have been open and available to FEMA and the state Bureau of Disaster Services."

Board members said that the county has always attempted to comply with "changing and confusing" directions from FEMA and have kept all recovery projects according to those directions and standards "as we best understood them."

The feds were rapped by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho).

The federal government "should work through the appropriate parties within local units of government." she said. "If they believe there are problems in the local units, then they should work through the state attorney general's office."

Rep. Chenoweth said federal agents should get permission from the state's attorney general before they make an arrest, search or seizure against a county official. "I know if FEMA had asked for records they would have been produced," she said.

U.S. Attorney Betty H. Richardson says Idaho Attorney General Alan Lance's office was advised of plans to serve a search warrant on Clear water County's flood command center four days in advance. And, she said that Idaho Department of Law Enforcement Director Robert Sobba could have refused to allow Idaho state police troopers to accompany the FEMA agents to the county.