Grassley, Issa Question Impartiality of Former US Attorney in Ousted IG Matter

By Matt Loffman

Mar 2, 2010 9:34am

In the continued fallout from President Obama's firing of Gerald Walpin, the former Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service, two Republican members of Congress today are questioning whether the Acting US Attorney in the case acted appropriately, questions that they suggest undermine the White House's justification for the firing.

In a report obtained by ABC News to be released this morning, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, respectively, suggest that politics — and specifically Walpin's investigation into Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, an ally of President Obama's — played a role in Walpin's removal.

The two make the charges based on evidence that then-Acting US Attorney Lawrence Brown "was actively seeking a Presidential appointment as the U.S. Attorney at the same time he was negotiating a lenient settlement agreement with Kevin Johnson, excluding the Inspector General from the negotiations, and filing a complaint against Walpin with the Integrity Committee," and communication between Brown and Matthew Jacobs, Johnson's attorney, which the GOP lawmakers say "do not suggest an appropriately arm’s length negotiating relationship."

The US Attorney's office referred ABC News to the Department of Justice. DOJ spokespeople Matthew Miller and Tracy Schmaler declined to comment. Brown is currently on the Sacramento Superior Court and could not be immediately reached for comment.

President Obama fired Walpin last June, with then-White House counsel Greg Craig stating that 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."

Walpin had been criticized for the way he handled an investigation into Johnson, former point guard of the Phoenix Suns, who was elected Mayor of Sacramento in November 2008. Johnson helped found a community group called St. HOPE Academy, and Walpin investigated how $847,673 in grant funds from AmeriCorps, a division of the Corporation for National and Community Service, were used by St. HOPE.

In the thick of Johnson’s mayoral run in September 2008, Walpin announced that he was investigating whether AmeriCorps members performed services “personally benefiting… Johnson,” such as “driving [him] to personal appointments, washing [his] car, and running personal errands.”

Johnson called the announcement "politically motivated." His campaign pointed out that in 2005 Walpin introduced Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at an event in Washington, DC, as the governor of a state run by the "modern-day KKK … the Kennedy-Kerry Klan." Johnson’s campaign issued a statement saying, "we have said all along that there may have been administrative errors, much like the hundreds of other small nonprofits that have been investigated in the past. We are confident that the U.S. Attorney will decide not to proceed when it conducts a nonpolitical review of the allegations."

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

But before that arrangement, as the White House pointed out, Brown wrote to Kenneth Kaiser, chair of the Integrity Committee for the Counsel of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, "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."

The Grassley-Issa study cites a January 5, 2009 letter from Brown to Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., seeking to be made permanent US Attorney, and saying that he is "not a rigid ideologue" and "simply did not fit neatly within either party…I count myself in the ranks of those who have grown weary of the overly-simplistic 'red state/blue state' debates over complex issues and enthusiastically embrace President-elect Obama's call to abandon such labels and become the united states [sic] of America."

Grassley and Issa write that it "would be reasonable for an already skeptical public to wonder whether Brown excluded Inspector General Walpin from negotiations and settled the St. HOPE matter with Johnson in order to curry favor with the White House because Brown wanted the President to appoint him as U.S. Attorney."

The report also notes that in March 24, 2009, Johnson's attorney Jacobs wrote to Brown about his "outrage over Walpin's letter to the editor" in a local newspaper. "He's not supposed to speak publicly about federal cases in this District. The DOJ regs explicitly state that the U.S. Attorney is the primary spokesperson for all federal law enforcement in the District. Moreover, Hilburg has stated repeatedly, and as recently as Saturday's Bee article, that he can't comment on ongoing investigations. So Walpin knows he's not supposed to comment."

Walpin had announced that Johnson, St. HOPE Academy, and former St. HOPE executive director Dana Gonzalez, were suspended from participating in federal contracts or grants until the investigation was complete. In early 2009 there were questions as to whether that meant Sacramento couldn't receive any stimulus funds.

Asked Jacobs: "WTF is wrong with this guy! First, he tried to effect the election; now he's messing around with the entire region's federal funding! Over this case?!

In all seriousness, the U.S. Attorney needs to stand up and say this isn't right. The U.S. Attorney represents the face of justice in this District, and for this District. Please."

Nine minutes later, Brown emailed back: “Message heard loud and clear, Matt. I am at a complete loss and do in fact plan to speak with Gerald." The next morning he wrote back "Off the record, as they say, I have spoken with Mr. Walpin this morning and expressed my views in no uncertain terms. I am not going to get into details of what was said.”

Grassley and Issa charge that Brown's letter to the Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency consisted of him "parroting…supposed grievances first presented to him by Kevin Johnson’s attorney."

Brown's questioning of Walpin's behavior was not the only arrow in the White House quiver. In a letter to the Senate last June, White House attorney Norm Eisen charged that at a May 20, 2009 board meeting Walpin "was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve."

Grassley and Issa's previous report concluded that in firing Walpin, White House officials "failed to properly implement the Inspector General Reform Act’s removal procedures; made no meaningful attempt to notify and consult with Congress prior to the President’s decision; afforded the Inspector General no due process; conducted only a cursory review of the facts, obtaining only one side of the story without waiting for a professional, non-partisan review by the Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE); and withheld hundreds of pages of documents from Congress in the course of its inquiry."

-jpt

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