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Bad Times for Whistle-blowers

A Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

As recent AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin tells the story, when a White House aide called him on June 10, Walpin thought the administration was calling him to enlist his support -- as a prominent Republican member of the New York bar -- for the confirmation of Sonya Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, Special Counsel to the President Norm Eisen informed Walpin that President Obama wanted Walpin out of his job.

Now the question is why Obama let him go.

Walpin's defenders believe Obama fired him because Walpin was a successful whistle-blower, who blew the whistle on the president's friends and pet causes.

In 2008, the Corporation for National and Community Service asked Walpin to check out St. HOPE, a Sacramento nonprofit run by former NBA star Kevin Johnson, who was subsequently elected mayor of Sacramento. Walpin's office found that AmeriCorps members had misused $847,673 in federal grant funds between 2004 and 2007 and that AmeriCorps hires had been misused to "personally benefit Johnson, including driving him to personal appointments, washing his car and running personal errands" and campaigning in a school board election.

Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown later announced a legal settlement that called for Johnson, St. HOPE itself and a former St. HOPE executive to repay taxpayers more than $400,000 the corporation had received in grants. On June 4, Walpin issued another report, this one questioning $16 million in awards by the Research Foundation of the City University of New York. As Walpin explained in a letter to CUNY, "The program doesn't work because it adds no service to the community which is not already provided by the Fellows program. Therefore, taxpayers are not getting their money's worth."

Clearly Walpin is a stickler. "There are people in our country who badly need the money for these community service benefits," he told me over the phone.

And clearly his attitude rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Brown complained that Walpin was not content to conduct an unbiased investigation into Mayor Johnson and St. HOPE, but instead "sought to act as the investigator, advocate, judge, jury and town crier."

According to Eisen, Walpin's review -- which led to his dismissal -- was "unanimously requested" by a bipartisan board, after a May meeting at which Walpin appeared "confused, disoriented" and "unable to answer questions."

"Is he being fired for doing his job?" asked Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista (San Diego County), ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. To Issa, this episode is reminiscent of the Bush firings of U.S. attorneys -- whom Bush had a right to fire, as they served at the pleasure of the president, but not a right to smear their reputations.

Issa also is concerned that the firing of Walpin may violate the Inspectors General Reform Act, which says, "The President shall communicate in writing the reasons for any such removal or transfer to both Houses of Congress, not later than 30 days before the removal or transfer." The letter Obama sent was incredibly vague -- only later did the administration call into question Walpin's possession of his marbles -- and denied Congress the opportunity to respond first.

The icing on this cake: Obama was a co-sponsor of the bill that included the above language to guard the independence of inspectors general from partisan pressure.

Was Walpin right about CUNY? I have no idea. But he must have been right about St. HOPE, as the Sacto nonprofit and its execs promised to pay back almost half the money.

As Walpin told me, when any group misuses AmeriCorps money for a political campaign or to get a free car wash, "That's like stealing a welfare check from a single mother." And Obamaland thinks he's confused.

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