The first episode of our second season features a panel discussion headlined by several of our 2022 Service to America Medals finalists, a group of exceptional public servants who have dedicated their careers to improving the health, safety, and security of our country. Event speakers shared their insights on why public trust in government matters, what agencies are doing to bridge the trust gap and what leaders can do to motivate a new generation to enter public service. The event—hosted by the Partnership for Public Service as part of Public Service Recognition Week—was moderated by Margaret Talev, managing editor for politics at Axios and CNN political analyst, and included remarks from Partnership President and CEO Max Stier as well as Shalanda Young, the newly appointed permanent director of the Office of Management and Budget.
2022 Service to America Medals finalists from panel:
- Mitch Zeller, former director at the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products
- Kyle Armstrong, former supervisory special agent at the FBI
- Bob Fenton, Region 9 administrator at FEMA
Resources mentioned during the episode:
- Public Service Recognition Week 2022 Activities
- Trust in Government Report
- Service to America Medals finalists and People’s Choice Voting
Tune in to this episode from “Profiles in Public Service” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us and subscribe to our show to receive notifications when we release a new episode.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: From the Partnership for Public Service, this is Profiles in Public Service – a podcast that tells the stories of the public servants responsible for our government’s most significant achievements.
Featuring career public servants, emerging leaders, journalists and more, we aim to showcase the exciting and meaningful work people do in the federal government, and to inspire a diverse new generation of public servants. I’m Loren DeJonge Schulman.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And I’m Rachel Klein-Kircher.
Whether you are already a subscriber from last season or a new listener to our show, we are excited to begin a new season of “Profiles in Public Service” and to continue sharing incredible stories from public servants, leaders in government, and the experts who know them best.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: To start us off, we’re bringing you an excerpt from a panel event hosted by the Partnership during this year’s Public Service Recognition Week about rebuilding trust in government.
Moderated by Margaret Talev, managing editor for politics at Axios and CNN political analyst, this panel discussion was headlined by several of the Partnership’s 2022 Samuel J. Heymann Service to America Medals finalists.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Opening remarks are also offered from Partnership President and CEO Max Stier as well as Shalanda Young, the newly appointed permanent director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: This group of exceptional public servants share their insights on why public trust in government matters, what agencies are doing to bridge that trust gap and what leaders can do to motivate a new generation to enter public service.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: To see more about this year’s Public Service Recognition Week activities or the 2022 Service to America Medals finalists, check out the link in our show notes or find The Partnership for Public Service on Twitter @publicservice. Please follow or subscribe to our show, wherever you get your podcasts.[Transition Music]
Max Stier: Hello everyone and thank you for joining us to celebrate Public Service Recognition Week. The Partnership for Public Service is proud to be involved in the annual effort to lift up the important work government employees at all levels do to strengthen our nation. We believe that building a better government helps build a stronger democracy.
This year, we’re celebrating PSRW in a moment that is interesting, challenging… and maybe even a little exciting. We have a government trust gap in this nation. A lack of trust in government isn’t exactly new, but in a time when so many of our institutions and traditions have been called into question, or even threatened outright, it’s all the more troubling. When trust in government erodes, what’s really eroding is one of our nation’s core foundations. And without that foundation we risk losing something that binds us all together for a common purpose.
Last fall, along with our partners at Freedman Consulting, we asked the public for their views of the federal government. Some of what we learned was alarming. Majorities of adults said they didn’t trust the government to do what’s right most of the time… that the government has an overall negative impact on the United States… and that the government does not help people like them. If you look at just those top lines, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that people don’t like government, full stop.
And you might wonder why, during Public Service Recognition Week, we would want to talk about why people don’t like the government. But here’s what makes this exciting: when you look under the hood, you find that things are much more complex. The public had a favorable view of 12 out of 13 well-known federal agencies. And some agencies, like the National Park Service, got a huge thumbs up. A majority agreed that federal employees are competent, hard workers doing important public service and improving their communities. And more people said their personal experiences with the federal government were positive than said they were mostly negative.
Most importantly… many members of the public associate the federal government with politics… and we all know how people feel about Congress and politicians. When we asked participants to focus on the non-elected employees in career service, their responses were much more positive.
We believe this is a key to change: If we can shift the frame and get more people to see government as filled with hard-working, community-oriented individuals who work together to help people… rather than as some faceless bureaucracy—which it obviously is not… we believe we can have a meaningful impact toward increasing trust.
That’s what we at the Partnership are focused on in the coming year. And that’s what we want to talk about today: the work we all share in changing perceptions and building trust, both within government and among the public, and the great opportunities that lie ahead as we embark on that work.
We have a great conversation with some of this year’s Sammies finalists ahead, but first it is my privilege to welcome one of the most important leaders to the success of our government, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shalanda Young.
Shalanda Young: Thank you, Max, for that kind introduction and for your leadership. As someone who started their federal career as a career staffer at the National Institutes of Health a little over 20 years ago, I am incredibly lucky to work for a president who values the federal workforce, and you see it in his actions and his words.
I can’t think of a better way to kick off Public Service Recognition Week than to be with some of our incredible federal public servants who are joining today’s panel. It’s great to be here with everyone. One of the best parts of my job as the Office of Management and Budget director is working with our career team.
In my previous role down the street, I saw the talent, the expertise, the dedication of OMB. I want to thank them for their hard, dedicated work, and I see it up close and personal every day. Our team cares deeply about implementing the president’s vision, about supporting federal agencies, and about serving the American people. Their commitment to public service is reflected throughout the federal government.
As someone who has worked on Capitol Hill, I’m all too familiar with some of the harmful rhetoric about federal employees. For decades now the American people have heard about so-called Washington bureaucrats ‘gone rogue.’ That rhetoric is corrosive. You can understand why the trust in government isn’t where it used to be, and people hear it all the time. That noise may be out of our control, but we can counter it with amazing stories of public servants getting the job done. Which is why the Sammies [Service to America Medals], are so valuable. They shine a light on how the federal government is delivering results for the American people, and that work is driven by federal employees.
My own role in public service began after graduate school. I’ve talked a little about where I started, I was a Presidential Management Fellow at the National Institutes of Health almost 21 years ago. That led me to the appropriations committee after about five years at NIH, where I hope my work there had direct impact on federal employees through our legislative proposals and by fighting back, frankly, corrosive proposals that often sought to use federal employees and our benefits—and your benefits— as bargaining tools. Now at OMB, I get to work with an amazing team that is committed to serving the American public. We’re using all the tools we have to meet the president’s commitment to restoring trust in government. You heard Max talk about that. From making evidence-based decisions, to keeping improper political interference from undermining the work and ultimately, our country.
I want to highlight two ways we’re taking on the lack of trust in government at OMB. First, under the leadership of President Biden, we’re working to change the way the federal government provides services. We’re doing this in part by focusing on life experiences, whether it’s an important life transition or someone is hit by an emergency. As a south Louisianian, that one’s important to me and something I’ve seen up close and personal. These are the moments when interactions with the government have a profound impact, and I also believe it impacts how people view the government. More broadly the president has directed a government wide focus on every experience people have when receiving services.
Families should not have to navigate a tangled web of government websites, offices, and phone numbers to access the services they depend on. Parents, as I’m a new one, don’t care whether a program is ultimately run by [Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor, or Department of Housing and Urban Development]. They just want to get the help they need for their little ones.
That’s why OMB has provided funding and talent from teams like the U.S. Digital Service to support projects, focusing on better delivering services for people we serve. Just earlier this month, we announced that we are taking on the paperwork and the long lines and the endless documents that people face when they want to access government programs. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s huge when we talk about how much time people have to devote to seeking government services. This is all part of this president’s effort to deliver better customer experiences to the American people, including communities that are often underserved. All too often, the people who need help the most have the hardest time getting it. That is what we are working to change.
Second, we’re investing in our federal workforce. We know that the federal government’s single most important asset is its workforce. That’s why the very first party and the president’s management agenda is to strengthen and empower the federal workforce. We are working to recruit, retain, and support talent who can help us meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. That means making every federal job a good job, where all employees have opportunities to learn, grow and thrive throughout their careers.
We are also building a roadmap to the future of federal work informed by lessons from the pandemic, and nationwide workforce and workplace strengths. And, we are building the personnel system and support required to sustain the federal government as a model employer able to effectively deliver on a broad range of agency missions. Providing services that meet people’s needs with a focus on their experience and strengthening the number one asset of the federal government, these are two of the best ways we can restore trust in government.
We’ve seen what a lack of trust in government and our institution looks like. This work is imperative for the president, for me, and for our country and frankly, the world. It’s made possible because of federal employees. While this week we’re focused on recognizing public service it’s important we do this all year round. There are millions across the country who have chosen to serve at the federal state and local level, and they are not thanked enough. So thanks to all of you who serve. Thanks to the Partnership for lifting these stories, and let’s keep up the good work.
Max Stier: Director Young, thank you for the wonderful comments and all of the very important work that you’re doing. It’s very exciting to hear. And it is tremendous that, as you said, you started as a career civil servant and are keeping your eye on the ball trying to help make sure our government can serve the public and in such important ways.
I am pleased now to introduce our panel discussion for today. Our moderator is managing editor for politics, policy and polling at Axios and a CNN political analyst… Margaret Talev. Congratulations as well. I saw Axios deservedly recognized that the White House Correspondents Dinner this past weekend.
Joining her are [three] of this year’s Sammies finalists. Amazing, amazing, amazing civil servants, beginning with Mitch Zeller. He just retired after years as the director of [Federal Drug Administration’s] Office of Tobacco Products, where he was instrumental in the fight to reduce access to tobacco products for young people.
We have Kyle Armstrong is a former FBI special agent whose team helped to crack down on terrorist financing plots using bitcoin wallets often to defraud unsuspecting Americans.
We also have Bob Fenton who is the Region 9 Administrator for [Federal Emergency Management Agency] based in California, and the former acting FEMA administrator, who oversaw the implementation of mass COVID-19 vaccination sites that served millions of Americans, including me… thank you. And the efforts to assist Afghan nationals who were evacuated from Kabul.
Thank you all for being here. Margaret, take it away.
Margaret Talev: Thank you so much, Max. It’s great to be here with all of you and looking forward to our conversation today. Mitch, I would like to start with you. You have dedicated the last 30 years inside and outside government to tobacco control and regulation. I just think of so much that has happened over the last 30 years, even as recently as the last week or two, when we heard of the big announcement of plans finally to prohibit menthol. I wanted to start at the beginning with you, why did you first get interested in the issue of tobacco regulation and how did it end up becoming your life’s work?
Mitch Zeller: It was an easy public health issue to turn to because it’s the leading cause of completely preventable disease and death in the country and in the world. And that is with amazing progress that’s been made over the last half century in reducing consumption and prevalence of tobacco products.
Nonetheless, the conservative estimate is about 480,000 avoidable deaths every year in the United States, primarily because of the use of combustible products, like cigarettes. I had dedicated my career to working on FDA related issues and this summer would have been 40 years that I was working on FDA issues. Then my career really took a turn in 1994, when I had an opportunity to oversee an investigation of the tobacco industry, by FDA, to see if FDA could assert jurisdiction over tobacco products and that two-and-a-half-year journey was life-changing.
We saw what the tobacco industry was admitting privately that they were denying publicly. We saw how scientists were being treated by the tobacco industry, recruited purportedly to come in to work on harm reduction only to see all of the research scuttled. The last 28 years of my career have just been a labor of love. More than 20 of those years at FDA and [I] wouldn’t trade a day of it.
Margaret Talev: You decided at one point to leave the government and to do the advocacy on the private sector or the nonprofit side. Can you talk a little bit about that decision? And then you decided to go back into government and another point.
Mitch Zeller: Sure. In 2000, the litigation that the tobacco industry had brought against FDA challenging our assertion of jurisdiction was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. In a five to four decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the tobacco industry that FDA’s assertion of jurisdiction was unlawful. With that, I had to shut down the program that I had started. The only way that I could continue working on tobacco was to leave government. I still had a [Senior Executive Service] position at FDA, but I could not have continued to work on tobacco.
So, I left and I went to an organization called the American Legacy Foundation, which was recently started as a result of the master settlement agreement by 46 state lawsuits against the tobacco industry. It was an opportunity for me to stay in the game. It took Congress nine years to put FDA back in the business of regulating tobacco products.
I always felt that personally and professionally I had unfinished business at FDA. In late 2012, I had the opportunity to begin discussions with folks in the Obama administration. We had a hypothetical discussion about what would it take for me to come back to FDA.
To pick up at some of the points that have been made, I left the private sector. I took a 50% salary cut. So, I was not coming back for the money. I came back for the opportunity to use the tools of product regulation to make a difference in reducing the death and disease from the leading cause of death and disease in the country, and that is tobacco use.
Margaret Talev: I remember back early at the beginning of the Obama administration when he signed, I guess, an order. I’m trying to remember exactly what it was, but it went to exactly what you’re talking about to regulation.
I remember it because I asked him about it, and he was not amused when I asked him about it. But it did seem like after so many years, the regulation of tobacco was kind of going to come front and center again and over the last decade, are you surprised with how much has been accomplished?
Mitch Zeller: I’m not. And this sort of goes to the heart of recognizing public service. I’m not surprised because of the remarkable dedication of the people of the Food and Drug Administration, and not just in the Center for Tobacco Products, but the career people and the political leadership, even in the Trump administration. In the commissioner’s office and elsewhere, there has been tremendous support for the principle of tobacco product regulation.
That doesn’t mean that we always got the support that we needed for individual policies, but I am not surprised that the Center was built from nothing and is now a thriving, fully stood up operation about 12, almost 13 years after the legislation passed.
Margaret Talev: Where you ever smoker yourself?
Mitch Zeller: When I was in summer camp Matt Halpert and I, he got a pack of Marlboro and we went into the woods, not on one day, but on two consecutive days to try to successfully smoke a cigarette. We were unsuccessful. We coughed and we gagged, and that was my only experience with cigarettes.
Margaret Talev: Did your parents smoke? Did you grow up with tobacco around you?
Mitch Zeller: Yeah, my parents were heavy smokers. The first surgeon general’s report on smoking and health was in 1964. I was seven years old. I don’t remember the surgeon general’s report, but that was when the adult smoking rate was about 44%, almost one in two adults in the United States smoked.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. We made ashtrays for our parents and arts and crafts class. This was not tobacco growing country, Swiss Flatbush, Brooklyn. Tobacco use/cigarette smoking was so ingrained in the culture. Houses had a bowl of loose cigarettes in the foyer as a welcoming gesture for friends coming over. So, I watched the toll that cigarette smoking took especially on my mother, who was never able to quit. My dad was able to quit in the 1970s. And what we’ve seen for cigarette smoking at least over the last 40 or 50 years is remarkable denormalization of this. No more bowls of loose cigarettes, and I doubt that in Brooklyn, New York, the kids are still making ashtrays and arts and crafts class for their parents.
Margaret Talev: I doubt that too very much. It does certainly look like society’s approach to smoking has changed, government— all levels of government, whether it’s local laws, what happens on airplanes— all of that has changed. But I do want to ask you how much is what’s the chicken and what’s the egg? Was it easier for regulators to restrict tobacco use because societal norms had changed or did societal norms change because of the work that you and regulators have done?
Mitch Zeller: That’s a great question. I don’t think that there’s a definitive answer. I’ll just give my theory. It goes back to the notion of states being the laboratories of democracy. Many of the policies that were put in place [including] clean indoor air laws and raising excise taxes, those all started at the state and local level.
I think those things contributed to the denormalization, especially of cigarette smoking, over the last 40 or 50 years. I think that what happened at the state level helped soften the ground for things like bans on smoking on airplanes, both domestically and internationally. There wasn’t a lot of tobacco product regulation going on at the state and local level.
But I think that when Congress saw fit to put FDA back in the business of regulating tobacco products in 2009, the legislation passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support. I think it’s because of decades of denormalization, some policy at the state and local level, and the time was right for the federal government to be put back in the role of being that gatekeeper standing between companies making deadly and addictive products and kids and other consumers of those products. There still needed to be the political will to enact the legislation. But in 2009, as I said, it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Margaret Talev: Mitch. I’m going to ask you one more question, then I’m going to move to some of our other panelists. I guess my question is looking forward now, I know you’ve just retired like a minute ago, but what is left to do in terms of tobacco regulation?
What do you see as the most pressing threat or bit of unfinished business? Setting tobacco aside there are other addictive substances or dangerous substances in the world of consumer products, what do you see as kind of the next tobacco?
Mitch Zeller: I’ll start with that last question. And it comes back to the issue of political will. I mean, what is going to happen legislatively? With the decriminalization of marijuana use? What is the future of regulation of CBD? I think these are open public health questions. They relate to addiction. They relate to the role of FDA. And what is Congress going to do as a legislative matter?
On the prospects for tobacco product regulation, I think one major piece of unfinished business is that cigarettes don’t have to be as addictive as they are. They are purposely designed to create and sustain addiction. FDA has a regulatory tool known as the product standard authority that could establish a maximum amount of nicotine in the most harmful tobacco products, which is cigarettes and other combustible products.
The science is there to support. Is there political will to render cigarettes as we know them minimally or non-addictive? FDA has done modeling and published the modeling results in the New England Journal. Over time, this would avoid millions of deaths, not, not millions of cases of illness, millions of deaths.
Because future generations of kids who would experiment with cigarettes would not become addicted. About 90% of all adults who smoke started smoking as kids. The tobacco industry in an earlier era had identified children and adolescents as replacement smokers for addicted adults who died or quit.
Now we can’t stop future generations of kids from engaging in risky behavior. But what if the cigarette that they could experiment with was no longer capable of creating or sustaining addiction? I think that’s one major piece of unfinished business that I know remains under discussion in the Biden Administration, and the science is there to support that policy.
Margaret Talev: Mitch Zeller, thank you so much. I’d like to turn to Kyle Armstrong. Kyle, thank you also for joining us. I just have to say, reading all of your stories as I prepared for this. You see the headlines and they’re over in a day. When you really sit down and, and take into account, what all of you guys have been working on in some cases, publicly, in some cases, very much behind the scenes until there’s a moment for an announcement, it’s really quite extraordinary stuff.
Kyle, you were the former, supervisory special agent, to the FBI who led some of the biggest in history, cryptocurrency related investigations that led to the unraveling of major terrorist financing campaigns that have involved ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hamas. Some of these schemes involved soliciting cryptocurrency donations that were supposedly for charities.
One scheme involved setting up a website selling face masks early in the pandemic when people were desperate to get face masks, it was actually a front for ISIS it turned out. For you and the multi-agency task force that worked on this to be able to do this, you had to actually be an expert in Bitcoin, in understanding blockchain, and understanding terrorist financing.
I feel like that’s not really a subject of broad, common knowledge. How did you get educated? How did you prepare yourself to be able to develop the tools that you needed to do this? Was it like strategic and purposeful, or did you just kind of in the process of doing your job realize that this was something you had to learn?
Kyle Armstrong: Well, thank you so much. Very flattering, and thanks for hosting here today. In terms of the overall illicit finance, I had been working with illicit finance with the FBI, I was there for about 14 years doing mostly illicit finance to include money laundering, terrorism finance, fraud investigations. As cryptocurrency really started to take over a larger proportion of our money laundering, terrorism finance and fraud schemes, you just had to learn it.
So, I think the public would be very pleased if they knew the depth of knowledge and expertise within the U S government. Broadly speaking, I was able to work with a lot of the best experts in the world that are in the U.S. government. So, the team that we had, that works not only these terrorism cases, some money laundering cases, but weapons proliferation, some really cutting-edge individuals worked, you know, from 10 different agencies, on the teams that we were on.
As I took over our terrorism financing unit for the FBI and a key sort of feature that we had was working with our intelligence community, our military community, foreign governments frankly, and just the best people in the United States government from IRS and Treasury and [Department of] Homeland Security, and FBI, and there are stellar prosecutors and [Department of Justice] prosecutors all sort of working together and identifying some of these schemes. Fguring out what tool is working, with private partners like TRM labs and others, to develop the best way to disrupt these schemes.
So, [I] sort of just developed the expertise. I started working on some virtual currency cases in about 2017. And so you just continue to work, and you sort of learn on the job and with these other experts from these other agencies. Again, some of the smartest people in the world.
Margaret Talev: Take us back in history a little bit, you mentioned 2017. At what point did federal investigators realize that the blockchain that crypto were going to become and were becoming new venues and why is that easier to hide than just cash or traditional financing mechanisms?
Kyle Armstrong: Those are great questions. So, you know, with the advent, the rollout of Bitcoin in 2009-ish, 2010, you know, there was a large proportion of virtual currency transactions that we were working on were related to dark net marketplaces, drug sales, things like that. Silk road was the first major dark net marketplace. That was a multi-agency group again, in a similar fashion, between [Drug Enforcement Administration], and FBI, and Homeland Security Investigations and others.
In 2013, the federal government took that site down. There were 177,000 Bitcoin which were seized and forfeited, and that was really sort of a broad attention-grabbing situation for a lot of folks. The size of this dark net marketplace, again, mostly focused on drugs, there were some other illicit items. But that really sort of triggered sort of a warning because at that point there were so few folks that knew how to do these investigations.
As you move forward, you know, again, in 2013/ 2015, you start to see a few cases here and there that involved virtual currency, mostly largely Bitcoin. But fraud schemes started to really pick up with virtual currency, investment schemes started to pick up with virtual currency, and so you just sort of dive in.
After securing a landscape view of what was going on, then you start to get more involved. That’s what happened with myself and our team. I left working cases and went to manage cases at FBI headquarters in our money-laundering unit, which housed the virtual currency evolving threat team, our best virtual currency folks in the FBI. I program managed that unit for a couple of years.
That’s really where I started to get in working, basically full time, on money laundering and virtual currency-based investigations. Around 2018 was really where we started to focus on that and see some of these big cases, you know, huge dollar amounts and Iranian, Russian, North Korean, Venezuelan, and some actual nation state involvement in some of these cases where, you know, there are a lot of dark corners in the virtual currency realm that we were trying to highlight.
As opposed to cash, to be honest, cash is much harder to track than virtual currency. And so there are, with most virtual currencies, there’s a public immutable blockchain. Every transaction ever consummated is available to look at on that public blockchain. Your U.S. Dollars when you pull out your us dollar and you look, you look at that serial number, no one tracks that the Federal Reserve may have some tracking systems. But cash is difficult to track, more difficult I think than virtual currency. As technology catches up again, some of these blockchain intel companies where I subsequently left from the FBI about four weeks ago and joined one because that’s where sort of the cutting edge and the fight is in tracking and publishing illicit transactions in the virtual currency space.
Margaret Talev: So, you’re being, celebrated here for the undeniably important accomplishments that you and colleagues worked on over the last several years, but I was going to ask how much of the fight do you think is behind you or the government and how much is still ahead? Is the problem solved? Did the task force do work that unraveled everything and no one can ever, uh, illicitly raise money through cryptocurrency again? Or what does the challenge look like going forward?
Kyle Armstrong: Another great question. Unfortunately, you know, the problem was not solved. Our strike force that we worked on, again, it was composed of a lot of the real brain power in and around the D.C. area, and several of us have left government. One of the primary reasons, I think, for myself and for other colleagues, working at the government, of course, you have a broad exposure to a number of things.
But working in the private sector at blockchain intel firms, which a few of us have, we have more tools at our disposal, and I think we’re able to more easily and effectively amplify some of the disruptions. So instead of us working on one case, you know, 10 of the best folks working on one case, we work on 10 each. We work on underlying investigations to help a hundred law enforcement agencies.
So, we’re trying to, I think, effectively teach people to fish, so to speak. We have folks that are law enforcement agencies, regulators who are still learning the mechanism for regulation, for investigation, for coming regulations. So we’re able to sort of take our experience and push that to folks in law enforcement, in government across the United States, and to local state partners, in order to get them up to speed. There is at this point, there is too much work for a small handful of folks at these agencies to do.
One of the statistics I saw right before I left [the FBI], looking at fraud schemes, the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC has put out some pretty good information about the amount of fraud schemes, such as romance fraud, that involves virtual currency. It’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars at this point. So, what we need to do, and I think it was difficult at government if you are focusing on the cases, is to push out that knowledge base and that expertise to others.
One of the things we are doing is working with dozens of law enforcement, dozens of regulators, governments across the west, frankly, to push out that expertise as to how to identify and mitigate illicit finance in the same sort of spheres of terrorism finance, money laundering, fraud. That’s one way that we’ve been able to do it.
I know myself, Jesse Brooks was one of our wonderful prosecutors, Zia Faruqui are our sort of our lead prosecutor and the lead of the team, and others from the team have continued to try and shine a light a little bit on some of the tools that are available to people to fight illicit finance.
Margaret Talev: It sounds like what you’re saying is when you think about public service, when you think about the crypto related investigations going forward, that there is a real public private role for collaboration, because a lot of the talent coming into government or working with government has come from the outside.
A lot of people who have been in government can have some more flexibility outside. Though obviously when you’re in government you have the ability and have access to certain information and a more investigative role. But when it comes to the developing technology, some of that has to come from laboratories on the outside.
Kyle Armstrong: That’s absolutely right, and you know, the good thing is we are in good hands. In 2017 when our group was forming an informal group of finding some of the best people, it was a much smaller talent pool across law enforcement and regulators. At this point, the talent pool is much bigger.
We have folks at all of the federal agencies that investigate money laundering, fraud, any of the normal illicit finance that you would think about. There are people that are coming in luckily, you know, you have college graduates coming in who have been using electronic payment systems and they’re much more familiar with virtual currency then I know that I was as a 15-year bureaucrat at the FBI. There’s a little more just sort of knowledge base that we’re recruiting from into the FBI, into the IRS, HSI, Treasury, things like that. We’ll catch up, it just takes some of that collaboration and again, great people working hard, which I think we have in spades at the federal government.
Margaret Talev: Kyle, thanks so much. And now Bob Fenton, I would love to turn the conversation to you. You are a famous administrator for Region Nine. I think right as our call was starting, you said that spans across like five times zones or something? Eight times zones? Something like that. But so you are the administrator for Region Nine but I think we know you better in the last couple of years as the former acting FEMA administrator, and as the guy who ran the enormous task of Operation Allies Welcome to resettle Afghans.
Let’s leave your Region Nine aside for just one second. I want to start by asking you about these two completely different, but completely massive, assignments. Your first one as acting FEMA administrator was essentially to lead and to organize the initiative that created a mass model for federal vaccination sites. This was about 9,000 people and around $5 billion. This was every state, every territory in the country, an emphasis on underserved communities and marginalized communities. When you got tapped for that task, did you have like a total, a panic attack?
How did you think about how not to fail disastrously and how you might actually succeed? How did you literally approach the task?
Bob Fenton: I’ve worked for FEMA for 26 years now and I had the history of responding to many big events in our country’s history, 9/11, [Hurricane] Katrina, and a number of other events.
I would say that the pandemic is the largest event that I’ve responded to as it has caused the most impact to the U.S. Taking this job on as the acting administrator of FEMA, this is my second time now doing it. I did it also in transition from Obama to the Trump administration, and now from the Trump to Biden administration. I came into it maybe having done it once before kind of ready for some of the priorities that may be coming from the president to FEMA and knew that we were in a battle against COVID. The vaccine had just come out in December. So as we went into January, FEMA had already taken a big role in some of the protection measures before then and some of the increases of medical staff at hospitals and those type of things.
As I was looking forward, I started talking to the administration as the transition happened and realized that one of the big priorities for FEMA was going to be to ensure that we have vaccinated America. FEMA is a great organization, you know, I think where we get our ability from is working across government state, local, private sector, nonprofit and the public.
When you leverage all of America and make it a whole of America effort, we are able to [tackle] some of the things that we were able to do in the short time period we were able to do that with, regarding vaccinating America.
Margaret Talev: Logistically, what was the biggest challenge and then beyond the logistics, I guess, message wise, what do you think was the biggest challenge?
Bob Fenton: One of the priorities of the administration was a focus on equity. And so one of the biggest challenges was explaining, and [related] to your discussion about trust, where to put vaccination sites that insured equitable distribution of vaccination, but more importantly, that we are reaching the most socially vulnerable first.
Communicating that to elected local leaders to the public the rationale reason for where we established sites was number one. How we communicated that. One of the things I think that I’ve learned over time in responding to incidents is regardless of how much you communicate, it’s not going to be enough, so leverage every platform that exists. Whether it be social media, elected local leadership speaking to the public, leverage everything you can to communicate what the strategy is and why you’re doing it. We knew that those that were Latinx and African-American were being hospitalized twice as much as others by COVID. So, it began a natural priority to start focusing on those populations and the most socially vulnerable populations in the United States first.
To be able to explain this and communicate this across all levels was important to ensure people understood why we were making that a prioritization. Then the next step was, how to get out to these areas and do this? Leveraging the military, leveraging Coast Guard, leveraging multiple federal agencies, from the foreign service, to other federal agencies that we work with in disasters. We brought them all under an umbrella and eventually established 37 sites across 27 states. But then what we found out really quickly, as we establish these max vaccination sites, it wasn’t going to be sufficient to really reach the populations that the president wants us to reach, which was most socially vulnerable, because they weren’t necessarily always coming to those large sites.
So what we did is establish 1600 mobile sites that allowed us to go into communities and service those populations where they were. It helped with some of the trust. Some of the ways we did this was build relationships with community leaders whether it be faith-based leaders, maybe political leaders in the community, but build those relationships to do that.
One of the places, for example, near me that we put a mass vaccination site was the open Coliseum. We chose a lot of sports venues because people knew where they were, and people had trust to go to that site. Plus it was in a socially vulnerable area, so we went ahead and chose that site. But then what we did is we worked with community leaders around there and reached out to community groups. So we would do something like maybe go to the community center or maybe a faith-based church or another place to vaccinate people where they felt more comfortable coming to that spot and maybe didn’t want to come to the larger area. But we looked for those kinds of places, made sure there was transportation, make sure there’s resources to help those get to those sites to get vaccinated. [Whether by car, by foot], by public transportation to get there and made sure that we made them feel comfortable and secure when vaccinated. To include talking about the vaccine and having doctors and others reach out to those that maybe were skeptical of vaccines at that time.
Margaret Talev: I want to ask you, Bob, about how you then pivoted to this other enormous task Operation Allies Welcome. They’re parallel in the sense that these were major crises that the U.S. government had to respond to, but a completely different population and a completely different set of challenges in terms of taking care of the population and also messaging to the broader American public about the mission.
I know some of that’s politics and you probably want to stay in the logistics lane here, but how did you approach that task and how did it end up being different from the vaccination task? Were there lessons from one that applied to the other?
Bob Fenton: Yeah, we use a system in the United States called the National Incident Management System. Leveraging that system to help you lead and organize how we operate, [that] helps us. Since the whole nation uses that system, you can then leverage other federal departments and agencies, state and local governments, and they all understand the terminology and how you manage and set objectives and those kinds of things.
Operation Allies Welcome was a very unique event. After I completed being the acting administrator of FEMA went home for a couple of months back to California and then I got pulled to DC in August when we all saw Kabul airport and Afghanistan get taken back over by the Taliban.
At that time, we were starting the evacuation of those who worked for the U.S. Government, those who support the U.S. government, whether it be the military, Department of State, or other organizations and move them out of Afghanistan. There’s about 10 locations across the mid-east and Europe we had to move them to, and then move them to eight bases in the United States, and then onward to communities around the United States to hundreds of communities where we settled them.
It was a huge event where we had hundreds of planes moving individuals and a very complex event that required that we make sure that everyone received their age-appropriate vaccines, to make sure that. we took care of individuals with unique medical conditions, to make sure that we also communicated to our public who was wondering, ‘who are these people? Where are they coming from? How do we ensure that you’re not putting someone that’s at risk to our community in our community?’ So, having the vetting and making sure that we vetted everyone that came into our community in that way to ensure that we were ensuring the safety of our community, not only from a medical perspective of vaccinating individuals, but also who are we letting in?
I found that again, this is somewhere where communication is critical. You have to almost over-communicate. So going to talk to congressional members, talk to local government members, to sheriffs, and different organizations. The other key thing was look at organizations, much like I did in the vaccination mission, that are going to help you communicate. So, relying on the faith-based organizations and the vaccination mission, you know, medical communities, other community leaders. In this case, I relied on the military. Veterans from the military that worked with these Afghans that were interpreters for a military could help me communicate make a who these individuals were and then put a face on them and tell, who are these people?
For example, one of the individuals, and I’ve had a chance to meet hundreds of Afghans during this operation, was a fighter pilot for the Afghan military, and was not able to go back home when this happened. He had to evacuate and left his wife and family. Another lady was an announcer, a radio announcer. She had evacuated because she wouldn’t be able to do that job anymore and she was at risk by being there. So when I asked her, you know, what do you want to do in the United States? [She said], I want to eventually get back to public radio. [I asked] where do you want to go? [She responded], I want to go to Hollywood.
Right? So it’s putting the kind of a face and a name on you know, who we’re helping and why we’re helping them and trying to explain that through organizations that help you tell the story of those that we’re trying to help is what I relied on to do that mission. Logistically it was very challenging. We had thousands of people each day that we were bringing into the United States. We had to bring him in safely. We had to make sure that, especially with COVID and other concerns that we did that in a way that maintained the safety from a medical standpoint.
We had many individuals that had injuries, and so having an organization that could do this over half of the world and multiple locations and work together collectively was critical. There’s a lot of great individuals throughout government that I got to work with from the Department of State, to the Department of Defense, that worked all hours to make sure that this happened effectively and did so much to the security of the Afghans that you know, were allies of ours overseas. But also to ensure the safety of communities throughout the United States.
Margaret Talev: Well, Bob, thank you so much for sharing your story. And of course, we’re all watching now as there is a government and private sector effort to resettle some Ukrainians who of course have had to leave because of the Russian invasion. So, thank you, thanks for all three of you, for sharing your stories.
I’d like to turn the conversation back to max and thanks for letting me be part of it.
Max Stier: Thank you all for that wonderful discussion and for your important service to our nation.
Before we close, we encourage all of you watching today to join us in celebrating Public Service Recognition Week. You can find resources and tools at psrw.org. And you can read more about our work on trust in government at ourpublicservice.org.
Lastly, the Sammies stories you heard here today are just a few of this year’s 30 remarkable nominees, who each made vital contributions to making our nation safer, healthier and more prosperous. Visit servicetoamericamedals.org to learn more about all the nominees and to cast your votes in our People’s Choice contest. Thanks for joining us… and be sure to thank a public servant today.
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Rachel Klein-Kircher: Our writer and producer is Abigail Alpern Fisch,
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Rachel Klein-Kircher: And our executive producer is Jordan LaPier. Thanks to District Productive for co-producing this episode of Profiles in Public Service.
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