AmeriCorps Inspector General Shredded White House Documents at Request of Agency’s Spokeswoman

November 12, 2009 - 11:24 AM
The acting inspector general of AmeriCorps said he shredded White House documents at the request of an agency press spokeswoman that pertained to the controversial firing of the previous inspector general, who was ousted after investigating a political ally of President Obama.

Gerald Walpin, former inspector general for the Corporation of National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The acting inspector general of AmeriCorps said he shredded White House documents at the request of an agency press spokeswoman that pertained to the controversial firing of the previous inspector general, who was ousted after investigating a political ally of President Obama.

The e-mail message from agency spokeswoman Ranit Schmelzer seemed urgent, as she wrote: “WH documents were sent in error. Can you please destroy them? And can you confirm you receive this e-mail?” Acting IG Kenneth Bach responded 13 minutes later writing, “Confirmed, documents were shredded.”

The email exchanges between Bach and Schmelzer, as well as other documents pertaining to the firing of the AmeriCorps inspector general, were obtained by CNSNews.com through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The documents referenced in the Bach-Schmelzer email exchange included a draft of a letter to be signed by President Obama that would be sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to inform her that Obama was firing Gerald Walpin as inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which runs AmeriCorps, and also a set of talking points to be used in explaining to the media why Walpin was being fired.

An inspector general is the designated watchdog for a public agency who is supposed to have autonomy from the agency’s officials in guarding against waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars.

When interviewed by CNSNews.com, Walpin said he thought a request from an agency spokeswoman to an inspector general to destroy documents and an inspector general’s compliance with such a request to be “shocking.”

“It’s an erroneous view that an IG should accept orders from the agency that it’s overseeing,” Walpin said. “I want to make clear that I think that Ken Bach is honest. It’s just that I don’t think he had the experience and background to understand that it’s wrong to accept instructions to destroy something that was given to the files of the inspector general’s office, and those instructions come from the entity that he should be overseeing.”

Bach had led an investigative team at the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office prior to joining the inspector general's office at CNCS, according to his biography posted on the CNCS Web site. Earlier, he had served for more than 20 year in the U.S. Army working as a Criminal Investigative Division agent focusing on white collar crime.

Walpin is suing in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia to get his job back. He said the request to Bach to destroy the documents indicates AmeriCorps’ “recognition that they’re doing something wrong and they did not want to have a paper trail of it. To me that is an admission of their wrongdoing.”

The firing happened on June 10 and documents show that the White House already had a media strategy worked out to respond to questions about the firing. Before being fired, Walpin had aggressively investigated Kevin Johnson, director of the Sacramento, Calif.-based charitable organization St. Hope Academy. Walpin determined that Johnson, a political ally of President Obama, had misused some of the grant money the group had received from AmeriCorps. Johnson later was elected mayor of Sacramento.

After the ouster of Walpin, both Republican and Democratic members of Congress demanded that the White House provide a reason for firing Walpin. Under the Inspector General Reform Act, the president must notify Congress 30 days before firing an IG and provide a specific reason. To comply with the 30 day rule, the CNCS put Walpin on a 30 day suspension from June 10 before the firing became official.

President Obama’s letter to Congress explaining the firing said only that he had lost confidence in Walpin. 

Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are investigating the matter and preparing a staff report on the issue. 

U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown of the Eastern District of California alleged that Walpin acted improperly in the investigation of St. Hope for talking publicly about the case too often. The Counsel of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the oversight organization of inspectors general who looked into the matter at Brown’s urging, determined that Walpin’s conduct was satisfactory. But the counsel’s ruling came after the firing. 

“We know that how Mr. Walpin has acted certainly has been deemed adequate and sufficient,” Kurt Bardella, spokesman for Republican oversight committee members, told CNSNews.com.  “What we still have questions on are the things you are looking into obviously here and just the overall issue of what the White House has said and what the circumstances actually were. We’re trying to reconcile that.”

On the day the White House notified Walpin that he was fired, Nicola Goren, the chief executive officer for AmeriCorps e-mailed board members to notify them that Walpin was out and that Kenneth Bach, the chief technology officer for the Office of Inspector General, would become the acting inspector general. 

That same day, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest e-mailed the draft letter to Pelosi and the White House talking points to Schmelzer, the corporation’s director of the office of public affairs. The draft letter and talking points showed that firing Walpin had been planned for some time. The draft letter was dated June 5, five days before the firing took place.

“I should have forwarded this to you last week,” Earnest wrote Schmelzer. “It’s the basic language that we’ve agreed upon that should be helpful to you as you draft a news release today. I’m in a meeting in the morning--but you can get me on bberry at this e-mail address or on my cell at [redacted].”

Schmelzer told Earnest in a return e-mail that she had talked with an Associated Press reporter.

“She wants to know what the circumstances were,” Schmelzer wrote of the AP reporter. “I stuck to our TP [talking points] on background (as an official from CNCS). I assume she’ll call the WH tomorrow for comment if she writes. Let me know if you have Qs.”

Earnest responded at 9:58 p.m., “I’ll let u know if I hear from her.”

The talking points that Earnest sent on June 10 had a headline of “CONFIDENTIAL: FOR BRIEFING PURPOSES ONLY.” They went on to say that Walpin had “delivered a disastrous presentation” at a May 19 CNCS board meeting and that he “displayed excessively antagonistic behavior to agency grantees and espoused a ‘gotcha’ mentality.” 

The White House talking points also criticized Walpin for living in New York and working in Washington, and pointed to the ethics complaint made against Walpin by Brown regarding Walpin’s investigation of Johnson’s non-profit group, St. Hope Academy because Walpin “spoke with the press, inappropriately, during the pendency of the investigation.” 

At 8:33 a.m. on June 11, Schmelzer forwarded the talking points to Bach at the IG’s office. She copied that message to Goren and the corporation’s General Counsel Frank Trinity. 

“Ken--here are the WH materials in case they’re helpful.”

At 9:10 a.m., she sent another e-mail to Bach.
 
“The send [sic] two WH documents were sent in error,” Schmelzer’s e-mail to Bach said. “Can you please destroy them? And can you confirm that you receive this e-mail?”

At 9:23 a.m., Bach replied: “Confirmed, the documents were shredded.”

At 9:25 a.m., Schmelzer forwarded the message about the shredded documents to Trinity, the general counsel for AmeriCorps. 

Schmelzer sent a statement to CNSNews.com in response to questions seeking clarity about why the documents sent to Bach needed to be destroyed.

“The documents in question were the same ones that were provided in the FOIA [to CNSNews.com],” Schmelzer said in the statement, referring to the fact the White House talking points and the draft letter to Pelosi that she had sent to Bach had been included in the FOIA release.

“I mistakenly forwarded these documents to Kenneth Bach,” said Schmelzer. “I advised him that the documents had been forwarded in error and requested that he not keep them as they were not intended for his receipt. Mr. Bach complied with the request. The agency, however, retained the documents.”

Bach spokesman Bill Hillburg said the IG’s office had no comment on the e-mail exchange. 

“I think you would have to talk to Ms. Schmelzer on that,” Hillburg told CNSNews.com. “Those aren’t documents in our control. I’m familiar with the documents. I think we’ve answered all the FOIA requests, everything that we have. I don’t believe those are ours. So you would have to ask her. I’m not familiar with that.”

Asked specifically why Bach would shred documents at the request of AmeriCorps’ public affairs office, Hillburg responded, “We don’t have any comment on anything like that.”

AmeriCorps General Counsel Trinity could not be reached for comment.

Eisen, the White House ethics counsel, said in a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that was sent on June 16 (six days after Walpin was fired) that the CNCS board wanted Walpin out because at the “May 20, 2009, board meeting Mr. Walpin was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the board to question his capacity to serve.”

The issue of Walpin’s behavior at the board meeting, which was first publicly raised in Eisen’s letter to the Homeland Security Committee, had also been included in the White House talking points that Schmelzer sent on June 11 to acting AmeriCorps IG Bach.