Tuesday, June 16, 2009

President Obama’s unexpected firing last Thursday of an inspector general looked suspicious. Now the story is getting worse. If allowed to stand, the firing of Gerald Walpin, inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service, surely will chill other efforts to rein in corruption within the Obama orbit.

Early reports on the firing focused on Mr. Walpin’s work exposing serious irregularities in the use of AmeriCorps funds by Kevin Johnson, the Sacramento mayor who is a political supporter of Mr. Obama’s. The irregularities occurred while Mr. Johnson headed a Sacramento educational enterprise.

That controversy in Sacramento remains a big part of this story. But another, bigger controversy, this one involving a program at the City University of New York (CUNY), has been largely overlooked. It is worth noting that Mr. Walpin issued his report on Mayor Johnson back on May 6 without losing his job. In contrast, the president forced Mr. Walpin out within a week of his June 4 report on substantial waste at the New York program.

Why would the administration be so sensitive to long-running waste at CUNY? Consider whose ox was gored. Here’s the story:

The Research Foundation at CUNY set up a Teaching Fellows Program in 2000. It had no AmeriCorps connection at the time. The program covers tuition for the fellows, and it has always attracted huge numbers of applicants. The program had 19,200 applicants last year for 3,000 spots. CUNY does not advertise an AmeriCorps affiliation as an inducement for applicants. A survey by Mr. Walpin’s office found that most fellows were not even aware there was an AmeriCorps connection.

Yet, for the past six years, AmeriCorps has granted each fellow up to $9,450 on top of their scholarships. As Mr. Walpin describes it, the AmeriCorps cash has the appearance of a gratuity - “because it adds no service to the community which is not already provided by the Fellows Program.”

The Fellows Program earns praise, but the AmeriCorps funding is far from essential for it. The grants, therefore - “upwards of $80 million of taxpayer money,” Mr. Walpin told The Washington Times on Saturday - would be far better used for other purposes.

“The [Fellows Program at] City University of New York is the largest AmeriCorps program,” Mr. Walpin told us. “The corporation board clearly did not like the idea that we were holding that their largest program was invalid.”

The board chairman is Alan Solomont, a longtime top Democratic donor who bundled more than $800,000 combined for the Obama presidential campaign and Inauguration. He had been a Democratic appointee on the AmeriCorps board since 2000 before Mr. Obama elevated him to chairman.

“Solomont has been very, very hostile to the IG’s office,” Mr. Walpin said. “It hadn’t been like that [before the new administration].”

Mr. Obama effectively shot the messenger with last week’s IG firing. Mr. Walpin has embarrassed two of the president’s supporters, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Solomont. Apparently that is cause for dismissal in this administration - even for a nonpartisan public official of unquestioned integrity.

Federal inspectors general were created to be free from political interference. Many of them serve through the terms of several presidents regardless of party affiliation. Their entire job is to root out fraud, abuse and waste of the very sort Mr. Walpin, to his credit, identified at CUNY.

The law governing inspectors general mandates that a president can remove them only after stating a cause for the dismissal. Mr. Obama has offered no substantive reason for firing Mr. Walpin. That is unacceptable.

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