- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2009

President Obama’s nomination of a major campaign fundraiser as ambassador to Spain has been delayed in the Senate over questions about whether the White House is withholding information from lawmakers about the abrupt firing of a government watchdog official.

The nominee, Alan Solomont, served from April until recently as chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, whose former inspector general, Gerald Walpin, was fired by the White House on June 10. Mr. Solomont, a Massachusetts health industry entrepreneur, helped raise at least $500,000 for Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and was among a group of top fundraisers, elected officials and others invited to a St. Patrick’s Day party at the White House.

Mr. Walpin has said that his firing came because of his investigation into Obama supporter and Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson involving the misuse of hundreds of thousands of federal grant dollars by a nonprofit group, of which Mr. Johnson was executive director.

Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a leading whistleblower advocate who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has requested records from the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service about Mr. Walpin’s firing.

But committee aides say that about half of the records provided so far, including several last week, include documents Mr. Grassley already had, redacted records, old press releases and newspaper articles. Among the records delivered to Mr. Grassley were documents related to his own requests for information.

“There’s no justification for withholding information from Congress here,” said Mr. Grassley, who has blocked Senate action by placing a “hold” on Mr. Solomont’s nomination amid the dispute. “This administration talks a lot about openness and transparency, but the true test is in cases like this.”

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said officials have delivered on Mr. Obama’s promise to make government more transparent in their handling of Mr. Grassley’s request.

“Our administration has demonstrated the president’s commitment to transparent government by meeting regularly with members of Congress - in both parties - to discuss this issue and sharing more than 450 pages of documents,” Mr. Vietor said.

Mr. Walpin was appointed inspector general by President Bush in 2006. In his position, he was the official watchdog for Americorps and other national service programs and regularly issued reports about potential misspending and government waste. His investigation into Mr. Johnson, a former NBA basketball star-turned-Democratic politician, was among his most high-profile cases.

Mr. Walpin reported that St. Hope Academy in Sacramento, where Mr. Johnson previously served as executive director, mishandled about $850,000 in grant money, including using volunteers to run personal errands. The academy and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento later resolved allegations of wrongdoing through a civil settlement that required half of the federal grant money to be repaid to the agency.

Mr. Walpin has said he was fired in retaliation for his work on the investigation and has filed a federal lawsuit seeking his job back.

Mr. Solomont and Stephen Goldsmith, a Republican member of the corporation’s board, backed Mr. Walpin’s firing. The acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, Lawrence Brown, also criticized Mr. Walpin, saying he provided “selected information” and withheld other details about the Johnson case, according to records sent to Congress.

Mr. Grassley sought records in June after Mr. Walpin was fired, writing in a letter to the corporation, “I am very concerned about the appearance that the IG’s communications with my office about this matter may have contributed to his removal.”

An attorney for the corporation, which is an independent federal agency, said that the “White House has directed us not to disclose” information related to “deliberative discussions between the corporation and the White House.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Solomont’s nomination as ambassador to Spain remains on hold until the dispute over the records is resolved. His nomination has drawn attention for other reasons as well.

In August, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics said that Mr. Solomont was just one of a growing number of Democratic fundraisers and political donors picked by Mr. Obama for ambassadorships, a practice that career diplomats in the State Department have long criticized.

Mr. Solomont helped solicit - or “bundled” - at least $500,000 for Mr. Obama’s White House run, while he and his family have given about $1.8 million to politicians and political causes since 1989, almost entirely to Democrats.

The contributions include about $770,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Overall, Mr. Solomont is the biggest political donor among Mr. Obama’s ambassadorial picks, according to the center.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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