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Shooting The Watchdog

June 18, 2009

IBD 16 June 09

Oversight: The inspector general for the AmeriCorps program is fired after accusing an administration supporter of misappropriating funds. The only thing transparent in this administration is its cronyism and hypocrisy.

After “hope” and “change,” transparency was the thing most promised by the new administration. Everything would be above aboard and visible. We wouldn’t see things like the Bush administration firing U.S. attorneys for “political” reasons even though it had the right to do so.

Enter — or should we say, exit — Gerald Walpin, who until Thursday was inspector general for the AmeriCorps program, that army of paid volunteers soon to be transformed into an endlessly funded national service program.

Seems that Mr. Walpin did a very bad thing — his job. He followed the money and discovered that the St. Hope Academy in Sacramento, Calif., had misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal AmeriCorps funds.

The nonprofit education group, led by Sacramento mayor and former professional basketball star Kevin Johnson, had apparently spent the money on local politics. Specifically, according to the AP, funds were used “to pay volunteers to engage in school-board political activities, run personal errands for Johnson and even wash his car.” All this, presumably, was to stimulate the local Sacramento economy.

As a result of Walpin’s efforts, Sacramento U.S. attorney Larry Brown reached an agreement with Mayor Johnson and the group to repay half of the $850,000 in grant money it had received, including $72,836.50 that came out of Johnson’s own wallet.

So does Walpin get an “atta boy” from the administration? Is a press conference held praising him for his due diligence and the oversight of this administration as it carefully shepherds every single taxpayer dollar through the system? Not exactly.

On Wednesday evening, Walpin was contacted by White House counsel Norman L. Eisen and given one hour to resign or be fired. Walpin refused, saying in an e-mail that it “would be a disservice to the independent scheme that Congress has mandated — and could possibly raise questions as to my own integrity.”

If you read the letter of the law that President Obama himself co-sponsored as legislation in the U.S. Senate in 2007, this attempt to intimidate Walpin into resigning was illegal. Unlike U.S. attorneys, who can be fired at will, there’s a specific and difficult process to fire an inspector general designed to guard the independence of an IG and block political interference.

The president must first, not as an afterthought, send a letter to Congress declaring his intention to fire an IG and giving the specific reasons why that person should be fired. After the ultimatum, President Obama did send a letter, one saying he no longer “had the fullest confidence” in Walpin and not much else. That’s not good enough.

As commentator Rush Limbaugh noted on his radio program Friday: “Firing an inspector general is a big deal. If you’ll remember, Alberto Gonzales as attorney general fired a couple of U.S. attorneys. He took hell for it. This is bigger. Inspectors general are supposed to be completely above politics.”

Walpin was appointed by President George W. Bush and sworn into office in January 2007 after being confirmed by the Senate. Mayor Johnson, as it turns out, is a big Obama supporter and contributor. In August 2007, he gave $2,300 to Obama For America. Hmmm: Bush appointee fired after investigating Obama contributor.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who also co-sponsored with then-Sen. Obama the Inspector General Reform Act, immediately fired off a letter to the president questioning both the firing of Walpin and the way it was done.

Grassley reminded the president of the statutory requirement to submit 30 days’ notice to Congress of an IG’s dismissal and pointedly noted, “No such notice was provided to Congress in this instance.”

We await the righteous indignation of Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews and the New York Times, as well as all those senators and congressmen who said, “Give us the head of Alberto Gonzales.”

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