- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The inspector general fired by President Obama after concluding that a California project backed by a Democratic mayor misused at least part of $847,673 in federal grants said Tuesday he is fighting back to protect the integrity and independence of all government watchdogs.

“For a second I was thinking, ‘Why do I need all of this?’ I’ll just resign and go back to my good legal practice in New York,” Gerald Walpin told The Washington Times’ “America’s Morning News” radio show Tuesday.

“But I would then be part of the apparatus that is totally torpedoing the inspectors general,” Mr. Walpin said. “The watchdog would not really be a watchdog. He’d just be afraid of his shadow.”

Mr. Walpin was fired as the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service by Mr. Obama on June 10. The White House said at the time that Mr. Obama had “lost confidence” in Mr. Walpin because of his job performance and friction with other officials at the agency.

Mr. Walpin, appointed to his post by President George W. Bush, insists he was fired because he targeted an Obama supporter, Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson, a Democrat, over the questionable use of federal funds in the founding of St. Hope Academy, a nonprofit high school in that city.

He filed a lawsuit Friday charging that his firing broke a 2008 law governing how inspectors general can be removed from their posts.

The circumstances surrounding his dismissal remain in dispute, but at least one prominent Republican in Congress has questioned Mr. Obama’s handling of the matter.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has demanded answers from the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service regarding Mr. Walpin’s termination.

“It appears he had been doing his job,” the senator said last month. “We cannot afford to have inspector general independence threatened.”

Mr. Johnson, a former NBA all-star, was the chief executive officer at the St. Hope Academy when it received the federal AmeriCorps grants between 2004 and 2007.

The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of California conducted a separate investigation and concluded this spring that the academy improperly handled the funds.

“St. Hope did not appropriately spend AmeriCorps grant awards and education awards in accordance with the terms of grant requirements and did not adequately document its expenditures of grant awards,” acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California Lawrence G. Brown said April 9.

But Mr. Brown also criticized Mr. Walpin’s handling of the case, accusing him of overstepping his authority, compromising his own impartiality and withholding information from the U.S. attorney’s office.

“The inspector general … sought to act as the investigator, advocate, judge, jury and town crier,” Mr. Brown said in a letter to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency..”

The Democratic chairman of the government-run Corporation for National and Community Service and the board’s Republican vice chairman have said they supported Mr. Obama’s decision to dismiss Mr. Walpin.

Under the terms of an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office, the academy must repay $423,836.50, half of the total grant money, and Mr. Johnson, who was elected mayor last fall, must attend mandatory training on proper procedures for grant administration.

The agreement also ended a ban on funds for Sacramento under the $787 billion federal stimulus plan.

Mr. Walpin said Tuesday that the academy is insolvent and will never repay the money.

However, the U.S. attorney’s office in California provided documents showing the academy and Mr. Johnson have each made an initial payment of $73,800.

Agency spokeswoman Lauren Harwood said the remaining payments are not past due and the office has received no notification that the academy has filed for bankruptcy.

“We have every reason to believe the money will be repaid,” she said.

Mr. Walpin’s lawsuit also says the Obama administration violated the watchdog law by failing to interview him and his staff, not giving Congress 30 days’ notice of the dismissal, and failing to provide a full explanation of the reasons behind the firing.

Days after the firing, a White House attorney wrote a letter to a small group of senators saying Mr. Walpin at a May 20 meeting was “confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior” that led the board of the corporation to question his ability to serve as inspector general.

The White House did not return calls for comment.

In their legal brief accompanying the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, Mr. Walpin’s attorneys say that the case “raises serious questions of age discrimination” because of the accusations that Mr. Walpin, who is 77, seemed unable to function.

Stephen Dinan and Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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