What’s behind Obama’s sudden attempt to fire the AmeriCorps inspector general?
By: Byron York
Chief Political Correspondent
06/11/09 8:14 PM EDT
Some strange and potentially suspicious events tonight concerning the Obama White House and the AmeriCorps program. I’ve been told that on Wednesday night the AmeriCorps inspector general, Gerald Walpin, received a call from the White House counsel’s office telling him that he had one hour to either resign or be fired. The White House did not cite a reason. “The answer that was given was that it’s just time to move on,” one Senate source told me tonight. “The president would like to have someone else in that position.”
Inspectors General are part of every federal department. They are given the responsibility of independently investigating allegations of waste, fraud, and corruption in the government, without fear of interference by political appointees or the White House. Last year Congress passed the Inspectors General Reform Act, which added new protections for IGs, including a measure requiring the president to give Congress 30 days prior notice before dismissing an IG. The president must also give Congress an explanation of why the action is needed. Then-Sen. Barack Obama was one of the co-sponsors of the Act.
Now, there is the hurried attempt to dismiss Walpin, without the required notice or cause. After last night’s call, Walpin got in touch with Congress, and it appears the White House has backed off, at least for now. This afternoon, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, who is something of a guardian angel for inspectors general, fired off a letter to the White House about the affair.
“I was troubled to learn that last night your staff reportedly issued an ultimatum to the AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin that he had one hour to resign or be terminated,” Grassley wrote. “As you know, Inspectors General were created by Congress as a means to combat waste, fraud, and abuse and to be independent watchdogs ensuring that federal agencies were held accountable for their actions. Inspectors General were designed to have a dual role reporting to both the President and Congress so that they would be free from undue political pressure. This independence is the hallmark of all Inspectors General and is essential so they may operate independently, without political pressure or interference from agencies attempting to keep their failings from public scrutiny.”
Grassley said he was “deeply troubled” by the Walpin matter and closed by asking the president “to review the Inspector General Reform Act you cosponsored and to follow the letter of the law should you have cause to remove any Inspector General.”
UPDATE 1: I’ve been trying to discover the real reason for Obama’s move, and it’s still not clear. I’m told that it could be a combination of the normal tensions that surround any inspector general’s office, or the president’s desire to get his own people in IG positions, or a dispute over a particular investigation. “Bottom line,” one source wrote, “getting rid of a tough, Republican-appointed IG who has been aggressively going after waste and fraud gives Obama a chance to replace that IG with a more compliant team player.”
I’m also told that a number of inspectors general around the government have been expressing concerns to Congress recently about threats to their independence.
UPDATE 2: More information now, from the Associated Press. The White House is going ahead with firing Walpin. The firing apparently stems from Walpin’s investigation of a non-profit group, St. HOPE Academy, run by Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who is now mayor of Sacramento, California (and a big Obama supporter). “[Walpin] found that Johnson, a former all-star point guard for the Phoenix Suns, had used AmeriCorps grants to pay volunteers to engage in school-board political activities, run personal errands for Johnson and even wash his car,” the AP reports. In April, the U.S. attorney declined to file any criminal charges in the matter and criticized Walpin’s investigation. But at the same time Johnson and St. HOPE agreed to repay about half of the $850,000 it had received from AmeriCorps.
Bottom line: The AmeriCorps IG accuses prominent Obama supporter of misusing AmeriCorps grant money. Prominent Obama supporter has to pay back more than $400,000 of that grant money. Obama fires AmeriCorps IG.
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