White House Explains IG Firing — Will It Be Enough?

We knew the White House was going to have to offer a fuller explanation for its firing of Gerald Walpin, the inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service who had clashed with an Obama ally.

And now it has. In a letter sent last night to Congress, reports Politico, Norm Eisen, the White House ethics counsel, wrote that at a May 20 board meeting, Walpin, 78, had been “confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve.”Eisen added that the bipartisan board had unanimously requested a review of Walpin’s performance, and noted the complaint against Walpin that was filed by the US Attorney in Sacramento, regarding Walpin’s probe of the city’s mayor, Obama ally and former NBA star Kevin Johnson.

Eisen added:

We further learned that Mr. Walpin had been absent from the Corporation’s headquarters, insisting upon working from his home in New York over the objections of the Corporation’s Board; that he had exhibited a lack of candor in providing material information to decision makers; and that he had engaged in other troubling and inappropriate conduct.

Separately, a White House spokesman has told FOXNews.com that Michelle Obama “was not involved in any way in the decision to remove Mr. Walpin.” That issue had been raised in a letter sent by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) to CNCS chair Alan Solomont, asking for details about the Frist Lady’s role. Grassley’s question seemed to be prompted by a report in the youth service newsletter Youth Today, which noted that, according to people in the field, “some decisions about CNCS are being made by First Lady Michelle Obama.” And it was recently announced that Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Jackie Norris, would join CNCS as a senior adviser — suggesting that the First Lady could be moving to increase her control over the agency.

Until now, the White House had said only that it had “lost confidence” in Walpin. That lack of detail provoked Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a staunch Obama supporter, to issue a statement yesterday contending that the White House had failed to follow the law by not offering Congress a sufficient rationale for the firing — a position already taken by several congressional Republicans, including Grassley. (McCaskill’s statement did not take issue with the decision to fire Walpin, but only with the lack of a full explanation for it.) It also allowed Walpin himself to embark on a tour of conservative media, claiming that he had been canned for going after Johnson.

Walpin responded to the White House in an interview with Politico. He called the letter “absolutely amazing,” and added:

Anybody who’s heard me speaking more than I’m used to speaking on radio and TV in recent days, obviously under great pressure from what happened would clearly know that I know what I’m saying and what I’m doing and I’m not incoherent. There’s nothing confusing about malfeasance and there’s nothing confusing about what appears to be the fact that they terminated me because I was doing my job because the White House wanted to protect people who proclaim they are friends of the White House.

Politico added:

Walpin said he did recall a board meeting where he became frustrated over “constant interruption…consistently breaking up my organization.”

Asked about the May 20 session, Walpin said, “It’s certainly possible at that meeting I had a bug and was tired. I can’t remember right now…All I can say is this is a weak reed to now be relying on.”

Walpin said he worked full-time in the Washington office for his first two years as inspector general and only began “teleworking” from New York after members of his staff convinced him to withdraw a resignation he tendered in January. He said he ran his plan to telecommute by the corporation’s acting CEO and general counsel, who had no objections.

“This is an afterthought,” Walpin said. “The problem isn’t that I’m not there. The problem is that I’m too much there.”

So what does this all amount to? The White House still appears not to have offered details on how exactly the decision to fire Walpin was made, and what specifically prompted it. Did it get complaints from the corporation’s board right after the May 20 meeting, then conduct its own review? Who was involved in the decision? And so on.

It’s hard to believe that Walpin’s performance at that meeting, however unimpressive, was the key factor in his firing — even in combination with the discovery that he worked from home. It seems more than likely, in fact, that his work on the Johnson case did play a significant role in the decision to fire him, but that in its letter, the White House chose to downplay that fact.

But here’s the thing: given what we’ve learned about Walpin’s actions in that case, it’s far from clear that there would be anything wrong with that.

A quick re-cap: Walpin was appointed to his job by President Bush in 2007. As part of an investigation into Johnson’s use of federal AmeriCorps funds — dating to when Johnson ran St. HOPE Academy, a Sacramento non-profit — Walpin found that Johnson had misused over $800,000. He took the rare step of recommending that Johnson be barred from receiving federal funds, pending a criminal investigation — a move that ended up endangering the city’s ability to get federal stimulus money after Johnson took office as mayor early this year. Walpin also publicly announced, during the mayoral campaign, that he was passing his findings on to the US Attorney’s office and suggested that Johnson might be guilty of a crime — an apparent breach of protocol. The local US attorney, also a Bush appointee, found no criminal wrongdoing in the case. And his successor, Lawrence Brown, formally complained to an oversight body for inspectors general about Walpin’s work on the St. HOPE probe. Brown charged that Walpin hadn’t even conducted an audit to determine how much money had been misspent by St. HOPE, and that he had withheld key exculpatory evidence. Brown accused Walpin of acting “as the investigator, advocate, judge, jury and town crier” in the case.

In short, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Walpin overstepped his authority in going after Johnson. And his background hardly suggests that he’s the kind of politically independent, non-partisan watchdog the IQ job requires. He’s a member of the conservative Federalist society, and once introduced Mitt Romney at a meeting of the group by saying that Romney’s state, Massachusetts, is run by “modern-day KKK … the Kennedy-Kerry Klan.”

This isn’t like the firing of US Attorneys. In those cases, the evidence suggests that at least some were fired for their unwillingness to do the partisan bidding of the White House. Here, by contrast, Walpin himself appears to have acted in a partisan, or at least an irresponsible, manner in his pursuit of Johnson. The evidence that Walpin performed poorly dwarfs the evidence that any of the fired US Attorneys did.

Legally, too, the situation is different. Yes, US Attorneys serve, like the CNCS IG, at the pleasure of the president. But because the threat of a politicized system of justice is so grave, there are specific laws and protocol governing when — aside from at the start of his term — a president can remove a US Attorney. That’s simply not the case to the same extent when it comes to agency IGs. As McCaskill pointed out, the law requires the president to notify Congress about why he’s removing one — and now he has done so — but it doesn’t significantly constrain his ability to fire an IG.

It’ll be up to Congress to decide whether the White House’s explanation is detailed enough. We’ve got a call in to McCaskill’s office to ask whether she’s satisfied with what the White House has put out, and we’ll keep you posted…

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