Oct 9, 2007

New DHS director faces some uncomfortable questions but passes confirmation hearing

LANSING – Ismael Ahmed, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s nominee to be the new head of the massive and troubled Department of Human Services (DHS), faced some tough questions at his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate’s Families and Human Services Committee, but some 30 supporters from state Senators and Representative to colleagues and friends spoke in support of him.

Following an almost four-hour hearing the Committee unanimously recommended the Senate Government Operations and Reform Committee appoint Ahmed as the head of the DHS.

Debbie Schlussel - a conservative political commentator, radio talk show host, columnist and attorney who has public accused Ahmed of wrongdoing in the past – made an appearance and accused him of Medicaid fraud, supporting terrorism and supporting anti-American and anti-Israel activities. She had to be gaveled off after going well beyond the 5 minutes for public testimony allowed by the chair of the Committee, Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Grand Rapids.

“We have heard a lot about bridge-building,” Schlussel said. “You know you have heard a lot of people who support him come up here who say they are Jewish, but they don’t represent any official Jewish organization.”

Ahmed is the executive director and founder of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), a private nonprofit agency that grew from a storefront operation that helped just about 125 people in 1971 to an agency with a $15-million budget that helps some 90,000 people a year. But following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks Arab-Americans were under a cloud of suspicion. Jansen, the chair of the committee, asked Ahmed about a 2002 raid on ACCESS authorized by then Attorney General Jennifer Granholm in an investigation of Medicare fraud.

“We opened all the files they requested,” Ahmed said. “We cooperated fully. Many people have been prosecuted because of this, but no one connected with ACCESS was involved.”

Ahmed said the investigation took a close look at one supervisor among the 200 employees at ACCESS, but the supervisor was relieved of his duties until they were cleared by the investigation.

In 2002 when Ahmed ran as the Democratic nominee to the Board of Regents for the University of Michigan he was accused by Schlussel as being friendly to Arab terrorist groups and committing Medicaid fraud.

“I know there is a blogger out there who would like to tie all of that good work to terrorist groups and Medicaid fraud, but it’s simply not true,” Ahmed said. “As an American born in this country and a veteran I am offended but not surprised because false accusations will always find an audience.”

But person after person came forward to tell the committee that Ahmed was a man of character, a bridge-builder of all races and a man of integrity. Jansen also said he had more than 30 letters and emails in support of Ahmed.

“He is both compassionate and a visionary leader who moves organizations forward,” said Sue Hamilton, the director of Health and Human Services for Wayne Country.

When asked by the committee for examples of major changes at ACCESS he has overseen in the past, Ahmed said ACCESS went through some major changes following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said ACCESS no longer supports any overseas charities or activities except the Red Cross and through the U.S. State Department.

“After Sept. 11 the world changed for Arab-Americans, as it did for all Americans,” he said. “After that we were under much more federal scrutiny.”

The DHS has been under fire for its handling of the Ricky Holland case, the 7-year-old Williamston boy who was murdered by his adoptive parents in July 2005 after the parental rights of his biological parents were terminated by DHS. That was a question the committee asked him both in person and in writing. Ahmed has been acting director since he was appointed last month, pending the confirmation hearing.

“I have only been here for three weeks, but I have asked that every death or near death instantly be brought to my attention and an investigation begun,” he said.

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