Former White House staffer named to head DHS policy committee

The Bush administration has been excoriated for appointing politically well-connected but professionally inexperienced people to important positions at the Homeland Security Department.

A recent appointment may do little to quiet those complaints: The department announced that a 28-year-old former White House staffer is heading a policy committee that gathers expert advice -- on behalf of the president and the Homeland Security secretary -- on key areas of homeland security, including threats to infrastructure and preventing terrorist attacks that use weapons of mass destruction.

Douglas L. Hoelscher is the new executive director of the Homeland Security Advisory Committees and the "primary representative" of department Secretary Michael Chertoff in dealing with more than 20 advisory boards. Among them is the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which includes such high-powered figures as Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, former Lockheed Chairman Norman Augustine, and former Defense and Energy Secretary James Schlesinger.

Hoelscher has no management experience, a review of his professional credentials shows. He came to government in 2001 as a low-level White House staffer, arranging presidential travel, according to news reports. He earned $30,000 a year, salary documents show.

A department statement said that Hoelscher will provide "strategic counsel" to Chertoff and represent him before the committees. In so doing, Hoelscher will be contending with formidable voices in U.S. policy-making from the private sector, state and local government, and academia.

Members of the boards are "titans in their fields," said Daniel Ostergaard, Hoelscher's predecessor. At 34, Ostergaard is young, too, but he is a former Coast Guard officer with two master's degrees, one of them from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. One group that Hoelscher will be coordinating with is the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, which includes top executives from BellSouth, Boeing, and Microsoft.

"The administration has named a qualified and talented professional to cultivate these partnerships," Stewart A. Baker, Homeland Security's assistant secretary for policy, said in a statement. "Doug will ... increase overall coordination between department leadership and our homeland-security partners."

Homeland Security is reeling from a congressional report on its botched Hurricane Katrina response, which found poor coordination between the White House, the department, and the private sector.

Hoelscher declined to be interviewed for this article; a Homeland Security spokeswoman said that he was on jury duty. But in a personal profile that Hoelscher created for the Web site Friendster.com, he offered some personal insights. He listed William Bennett's The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals among his favorite books and wrote, "I'm usually fairly quiet in a group setting -- I am not a talker but a pretty good listener."

Hoelscher launched his political career after graduating from the University of Iowa in 1999. During the 2000 campaign, he worked for Wisconsin's Republican Party, campaign finance records show. In 2001, he was a political coordinator in the White House Office of Political Affairs, which was run by Ken Mehlman, who was Bush's Midwest regional political director in the 2000 campaign and is now the Republican National Committee chairman. (Mehlman didn't respond to an interview request.)

In 2004, Hoelscher worked for the RNC. The following year he became Homeland Security's White House liaison, "obtaining information from the department," said Joanna Gonzalez, a department spokeswoman. During Katrina, he helped deploy volunteers from the department to the Gulf Coast, she said. The congressional report on Katrina noted that some of those employees had trouble making it to the region because of departmental miscommunications.

Hoelscher also "made sure [that department political appointees] were all placed in the office where they were happiest and ... fit best," Gonzalez said.

Controversial political appointments at the department include Michael Brown, the former FEMA director, who was a longtime friend of Bush's 2000 campaign director, Joe Allbaugh; Julie Myers, who's married to Chertoff's chief of staff and heads the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau despite lacking law enforcement credentials; and Eduardo Aguirre Jr., a career Texas banker with Bush family ties, who was director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

One congressional staffer defended the appointment, noting that high turnover plagues the department and that Hoelscher has performed well. "He has been very proactive" in notifying Hill staffers of political appointments, the staffer said. Acknowledging Hoelscher's youth and limited experience, the staffer said that he wouldn't be left on his own: "There's plenty of adult supervision" at the department.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook