Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Obama administration will have a hard time defending its actions against a suit by fired AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin.

In our June 24 editorial headlined “Lieberman overlooks Walpingate,” we suggested that the White House “verged on improper age discrimination by claiming the 77-year-old Mr. Walpin was ‘disoriented’ and ‘confused’ at a May 20 meeting.” In a footnote to a lawsuit Mr. Walpin filed on Friday demanding his job back, Mr. Walpin’s lawyers have written that “the [White House] conduct at issue raises serious questions of age discrimination, retaliation against whistleblowers and defamation.”

The suit itself does not (yet) claim age discrimination — but the threat of a future such claim, which is inherent in the footnote, is justified based on the circumstances.

The Web site of the nonprofit organization “Workplace Fairness,” which specializes in providing information about employment discrimination, provides this as one of six examples of “potentially unlawful age discrimination”: “Before you were fired, your supervisor made age-related remarks about you, such as that you were ‘over-the-hill,’ or ‘ancient.’ ”

For instance, just last August a federal district court in Illinois ruled in McDonald v. Best Buy that an employer’s repeated use of the word “Grandma” with reference to an employee he was trying to force out was evidence of an age-discriminatory motive.

The Walpin case is even more cut and dried. The Inspector General Reform Act of 2008, which President Obama co-sponsored while he was in the Senate, provides that no IG can be dismissed without 30 days notice or without the president providing Congress with a reason for the dismissal. Mr. Walpin was first notified that he would be let go on June 10. On June 16 - still 24 days before his termination became official — the White House wrote to Congress that the 77-year-old Mr. Walpin was “disoriented” and “confused” at a May 20 meeting in a way that led to questions about “his capacity to serve.”

Thus, without any previous or subsequent efforts to ascertain the state of Mr. Walpin’s health, and without any other single instance, before or since, of Mr. Walpin appearing “disoriented,” the White House used code words suggesting that Mr. Walpin was senile. Indeed, White House special counsel Norman Eisen listed that alleged disorientation as the very first reason Mr. Walpin would be fired.

Mr. Obama is treading on dangerous ground here. Mr. Walpin seems to have an excellent case. He ought to be restored to his position.

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