AmeriCorps IG Firing Still Facing Questions from Congress

By Fred Lucas | June 18, 2009 | 2:41 PM EDT

President Barack Obama gestures during a joint news conference with the South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, not shown, Tuesday, June 16, 2009, in the Rose Garden of The White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CNSNews.com) – Lawmakers still want to know more about the firing of a government investigator who had probed a political supporter of President Barack Obama, even after the White House issued a letter to Congress describing the investigator as “confused, disoriented.”

President Barack Obama fired Gerald Walpin, inspector general for the Corporation of National and Community Service, which runs the youth volunteer program AmeriCorps. Walpin led an investigation that in September 2008 found misuse of federal grants from AmeriCorps by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a political ally of the president, and Johnson’s education charity St. HOPE Academy. (See Previous Story)

Federal money intended for the charity was allegedly used to pay for political activities and run personal errands for Johnson, according to the IG report. Ultimately, Johnson and St. Hope agreed to repay half of the $847,000 in grants they received from AmeriCorps between 2004 and 2007.

One day after she said the administration “failed to follow the proper procedure in notifying Congress” before firing an inspector general, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) softened her stance considerably, but she still believes there is more to learn.

McCaskill said that subsequent White House explanation “now puts the White House in full compliance with the notice requirement in the law.”

“The next step for Congress is to use the 30 days provided by the notice to seek further information and undertake any further review that might be necessary,” McCaskill said in a statement Wednesday. “The reasons given in the most recent White House letter are substantial and the decision to remove Walpin appears well founded.”

McCaskill was the lead sponsor of the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008, which Obama co-sponsored as a senator. The law requires that the president give Congress 30 days notice before dismissing an inspector general and provide Congress with an explanation of why such action is necessary. Walpin was put on administrative leave, barred from returning to his office just as the president notified congressional leaders.

Obama provided no explanation to Congress other than a June 11 letter stating, “It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.”

McCaskill, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, on Tuesday called for the White House to explain further.

“The White House has failed to follow the proper procedure in notifying Congress as to the removal of the Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service,” McCaskill said in a statement. “The legislation which was passed last year requires that the president give a reason for the removal. ‘Loss of confidence’ is not a sufficient reason.”

That same day, White House Counsel Norman Eisen sent a letter to Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman and ranking member of the homeland security committee, forwarded to McCaskill, giving further rationale for the firing.

“Mr. Walpin was removed after a review was unanimously requested by the bi-partisan Board of the Corporation,” Eisen wrote. “The board’s action was precipitated by a May 20, 2009 board meeting at which Mr. Walpin was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the board to question his capacity to serve.

“Upon our review, we also determined that the Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California, a career prosecutor who was appointed to his post during the Bush Administrator, had filed a complaint about Mr. Walpin’s conduct with the oversight body for inspectors general, including for failing to disclose exculpatory evidence,” Eisen added.

Walpin couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday at his listed number, but he told Politico he “had a bug and was tired” at the May 20 meeting and that, “There’s nothing confusing about malfeasance and there’s nothing confusing about what appears to be the fact that they terminated me because I was doing my job because the White House wanted to protect people who proclaim they are friends of the White House.”

The White House insisted the detail in the letter was necessary, referencing members of Congress and one media outlet complaining about lack of detail.

“These were views that were held by many people as part of that board, and certainly the administration stands behind what’s in the letter,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.

“I have occasion to watch Fox [News] every now and again, and I think there have been commentators that surmised that maybe we needed to be more specific about the reasons. I think members of Congress have asked for that, and I think it’s detailed in the letter,” Gibbs added.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is seeking hearings into the matter.

“Despite the requirement to notify Congress in advance of firing an IG, the White House moved swiftly to sack an investigator who uncovered wrongdoing and abuse by a political ally of the President,” Issa said in a statement.

“Because the President did not follow the law in firing an Inspector General and clearly articulating the reasons for his removal, this firing sends a chilling message to all Inspectors General: investigating a political ally of this President may cost you your job,” he added.

Issa also questioned whether the White House might have asserted influence over the acting U.S. attorney, who on April 29 sent a letter to the federal counsel of inspectors general saying that Walpin’s conclusions seemed overstated and did not accurately reflect all the information gathered in the investigation.

On Wednesday, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Attorney General Eric Holder to provide Congress with more specific information about a complaint made against Walpin by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of California.

“Specifically, I want to know whether department regulations require a U.S. Attorney obtain prior approval of any allegation of misconduct by non-department government officials prior to referral for investigation or sanction,” Grassley said.

“If there are regulations, I want to know if they were followed in this instance by the acting-U.S. Attorney and who at the department know and who approved the allegations of misconduct prior to the referral,” Grassley added.

Grassley this week also filed request for all documents that might demonstrate what role the office of first lady Michelle Obama played in the firing, if any. The first lady’s former chief of staff, Jackie Norris, is expected to join AmeriCorps as the senior advisor next week. Grassley said he is not accusing the White House or the first lady of anything. (See Previous Story)

“It was more a case of trying to make that determination as to whether to draw a conclusion,” Grassley told reporters in a conference call Wednesday. “Your question would imply that a conclusion has been drawn, and no conclusion has been drawn in regard to the first lady’s office.”