More Details Emerge In President Obama’s Firing of Inspector General

By Evan Harris

Jun 13, 2009 8:37am

It was Wednesday evening and Gerald Walpin was pleading for his job.

Just a few hours before, at around 5:20 pm, Walpin — , Inspector General of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) — was driving on a highway when he had received a phone call from Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, informing him that President Obama no longer had confidence in him and wanted him to resign.

Walpin had an hour to make up his mind as to whether he was going to resign or have the president seek his suspension and termination, as indicated in email from Walpin to Eisen obtained by ABC News.

(A White House official tells ABC News that on Wednesday afternoon, "Walpin was informed, as a courtesy, of the president's decision to replace him. Mr. Walpin asked for time to consider resigning. He was told the decision to replace him was final, but for logistical reasons having to do with preparing the Congressional notifications, he could call back within the hour if he chose to resign.")*

In that email, as well as other documents surrounding Walpin's termination obtained by ABC News, a picture emerges of an ambitious and aggressive inspector general whose actions repeatedly offended officials of the US Attorney's office, to the point that the Republican-appointee in the US Attorney's office filed an official complain against the Republican-appointed Inspector General.

Walpin — appointed to his job under President George W. Bush — wrote to Eisen that "Congress intended the Inspector General of CNCS to have the utmost independence of judgment in his deliberations respecting the propriety of the agency's conduct and the actions of its officers. That is why the relevant statute provides that the President may remove the IG only if he supplies the Congress with a statement of his reasons–which is quite a different matter than executive branch officials who serve at his pleasure and can therefore be removed for any reason and without notification to Congress."

Walpin told Eisen that he took "this statutorily-mandated independence of my office very seriously, and, under the present circumstances, I simply cannot make a decision to respect or decline what you have said were the President's wishes within an hour or indeed any such short time."

Walpin had just issued two reports that were very critical of the actions taken by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

"It would do a disservice to the independent scheme that Congress has mandated–and could potentially raise questions about my own integrity–if I were to render what would seem to many a very hasty response to your request," Walpin wrote. "I heard your statement that this request that you communicated on behalf of the President and the timing of our reports and disagreement with the CNCS Board and management are 'coincidence,' as you put it on the phone, but I would suggest there is a high likelihood that others may see it otherwise."

Walpin said that he suspected that "when presented with the circumstances I have just discussed, the President will see the propriety of providing me additional time to reflect on his request. If however he believes that my departure is a matter of urgency, then he will have to take the appropriate steps toward ordering my removal, without my agreement."

The latter scenario is the one that played out, with President Obama informing congressional leaders of his decision in a letter stating that “it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector general.”

In a follow-up letter, White House counsel Greg Craig — responding to a letter of concern about Walpin’s termination from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — noted that Lawrence Brown, the “Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California, a career prosecutor who was appointed to his post during the Bush Administration, has referred Mr. Walpin’s conduct for review by the Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.”

Craig said that the White House was “aware of the circumstances leading to that referral and of Mr. Walpin’s conduct throughout his tenure and can assure you that that the president’s decision was carefully considered.” He noted that Walpin’s termination “is fully supported by the Chair of the Corporation (a Democrat) and the Vice-Chair (a Republican).”

As we detailed yesterday, Walpin was criticized by Acting US Attorney Brown for his handling of an investigation into the use of AmeriCorps funds by a community group called St. HOPE Academy, founded by Kevin Johnson, former point guard of the Phoenix Suns, who was elected Mayor of Sacramento last November and is an ally of the president’s.

In that April 29 letter from Brown to Kenneth Kaiser, chair of the Integrity Committee for the Counsel of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the Acting US Attorney wrote "to express my Office's concerns about the conduct" of Walpin in the handling of the Johnson case.

"In our experience," Brown wrote in the letter obtained by ABC News, "the role of an Inspector General is to conduct an unbiased investigation, and then forward that investigation to my Office for a determination as to whether the facts warrant a criminal prosecution, civil suit or declination. Similarly, I understand that after conducting such an unbiased investigation, the Inspector General is not intended to act as an advocate for suspension or debarment. However, in this case Mr. Walpin viewed his role very differently. He sought to act as the investigator, advocate, judge, jury and town crier."

In April of this year, St. HOPE Academy agreed to pay a $423,836.50 settlement — $72,836.50 of which would be paid personally by Mayor Johnson.

Brown expressed chagrin that US Attorney's office learned about the investigation into Johnson and St. HOPE through articles in the Sacramento Bee, and he said they found Walpin's comments surrounding the investigation unprofessional.

"Moreover, we considered the IG referral somewhat unusual in that it was accompanied by a letter from Mr. Walpin explaining that he viewed the conduct in this case as egregious and warranted our pursuing the matter criminally and civilly," he wrote.

On August 25 Brown's office met with Walpin and two investigators and "expressed our concerns that the conclusions in their report seemed overstated and did not accurately reflect all the information gathered in their investigation." For example, Brown wrote, Walpin's office had not actually done an audit to establish how much AmeriCorps money was actually misspent.

The next time Brown heard from Walpin's office, Brown wrote, was through the Bee a from a press release in which Walpin advocated to have St. HOPE, Johnson and Gonzales placed on the list of parties suspended from receiving federal funds — a serious move that Brown suggests his office did not know about until reading it in a press release.

On September 26, Brown said, the then-US Attorney McGregor Scott "emphatically informed Mr. Walpin that under no circumstance was he to communicate with the media about a matter under investigation and that his acts "were hindering our investigation and handling of this matter."

Ultimately the US Attorney's office determined that "a significant portion of the AmeriCorps grant funds were appropriately expended." They concluded that Walpin's investigation was wanting. For instance, Walpin's referral of his investigation to the US Attorney's office concluded that St. HOPE AmeriCorps members performed no tutoring," but the principal of an elementary school told the US Attorney's office that wasn't true, that St. HOPE AmeriCorps members had performed tutoring at his school. Upon further investigation, Brown wrote, the US Attorney's office found that Walpin had received a similar statement from the principal "but did not include it in their report or disclose it" to his office.

Walpin "overstepped his authority by electing to provide my Office with selective information and withholding other potentially significant information at the expense of determining the truth," Brown concluded.

In his official response to Brown's complaint against him, Walpin referred to the Inspector General Act of 1978 which asserts that the IG has the duty to "[a]ssume a leadership role in any and all activities which he deems useful to promote economy and efficiency in the administration of programs and operations or prevent and detect…waste in such programs and operations."

"IG offices are not intended to shy away from communication to the public through the media," Walpin wrote.

He disputed that he hadn't informed the US Attorney's office that he was considering asking the Corporation for National and Community Service to have Kevin Johnson and St. HOPE suspended from receiving federal funds. "The only thing that the United States Attorney's Office did not know was whether and when the Corporation would act."

As for the exculpatory testimony of the principal, Walpin said he found it irrelevant since the principal had told them that he had not "physically observed members on a daily basis…conducting tutoring."

-jpt

* This post was updated with the White House official's added context.

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