Monday, June 15, 2009

Congress ought to open an investigation, New York Times editorialists should be in a state of apoplexy, and MSNBC hosts ought to be frothing at the mouth. Without appropriate documentation or good reason, President Obama has fired a federal investigator who was on the case against a political ally of the president’s. Mr. Obama’s move has the stench of scandal.

On June 11, Mr. Obama fired Gerald Walpin, inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service. He offered no public reason for doing so other than that he “no longer” had “the fullest confidence” in Mr. Walpin. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, is rightly questioning the firing and the explanation for it.

The senator noted that the Inspector General Reform Act requires the president to “communicate in writing … the reasons for any such removal.” Losing one’s “fullest confidence” hardly qualifies as a justifiable reason. The Senate report language attached to the act explains: “The requirement to notify the Congress in advance of the reasons for the removal should serve to ensure that Inspectors General are not removed for political reasons.”

Yet, as Associated Press noted, “Obama’s move follows an investigation by IG Gerald Walpin finding misuse of federal grants by a nonprofit education group led by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is an Obama supporter and former NBA basketball star.” Further, “The IG found that Johnson … had used Americorps grants to pay volunteers to engage in school-board political activities, run personal errands for Johnson and even wash his car.”

Sacramento U.S. Attorney Larry Brown criticized Mr. Walpin for publicly announcing the investigation rather than more quietly cooperating with federal prosecutors. Clearly, though, there was merit to Mr. Walpin’s charges: Mr. Brown’s office reached a settlement ordering the nonprofit organization to repay half of the $850,000 in grant money it received - with $72,836.50 of that repayment coming from Mr. Johnson’s own pocket.

Mr. Grassley said, “There have been no negative findings against Mr. Walpin by the Integrity Committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, and [Mr. Walpin] has identified millions of dollars in Americorps funds either wasted outright or spent in violation of established guidelines. In other words, it appears he has been doing his job. We cannot afford to have Inspector General independence threatened.” We concur.

It is highly unusual and very suspicious when an IG is summarily fired, especially when political entanglements are involved. There will be much more to report in coming days on this White House action, which was heavy-handed and almost certainly unethical.

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