On Friday, President Obama abruptly announced the replacement of Gerald Walpin, the Inspector General for Americorps. The reasons for this decision were not made clear, raising questions as to what motivated the firing. As a result, Rush Limbaugh and associated media are screaming cronyism.
The fired IG Walpin recently concluded an investigation of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a supporter of the President, which revealed mishandling of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Americorp grants. A recent settlement of the case required Johnson to personally pay back US$72,836 — and now the investigator who busted him has been fired.
Obama’s letter to Vice-President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi detailing Walpin’s firing spoke in vague terms on the need for confidence in national integrity investigators. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, known as a protector of the IGs, has demanded better information on the firing in this letter (PDF).
Wagging the dog, basketball edition…
It is now conventional wisdom in right wing press (and has been repeated in major outlets) that Johnson and Obama are “basketball buddies”, but characterizations of that relationship prior to Rush Limbaugh’s comment on the issue do not seem to support this. Like most Democrats, Johnson supported Obama’s presidential bid and was a donor to his campaign. Johnson attended a meeting with Obama along with other mayors while in town for the inauguration. Prior to this, the former NBA star turned mayor tried to get media attention by suggesting he would beat the President at hoops. There’s no indication they ever played, and the group meeting at the inauguration appears to be the only time they have ever met. Johnson, like many local politicians has publicly described himself as “like Obama“, but despite Obama’s popularity, Johnson never suggested that the President was particularly aware of him. The former basketball player won his first election in November 2008.
Even so, Global Integrity reported extensively on the vulnerability of the Inspectors General to political pressure in the last Global Integrity Report: United States. Across the entire Global Integrity Report we find that political interference in accountability mechanisms is pervasive worldwide; clearly some close scrutiny of the firing is warranted. In the American context, this is especially relevant considering the recent failure in internal accountability processes in the Stevens’ corruption case and the White House’s ambitious transparency rhetoric (and some legitimate progress) around stimulus spending and other topics.
Public trust is won not through rhetoric alone, but through increase in public access. The decisions, reasoning and actions of state-run, internal accountability processes must be transparent and open to public oversight. This includes the hiring and firing of inspectors. The President’s weak explanation for Walpin’s firing is also disconcerting because of Walpin’s proven track record investigating and recovering mishandled funds. Walpin should be a model for the Obama administration’s accountability initiatives, but instead he was forced out of his position. Why?
The Project on Government Oversight is calling for the release of more concrete reasons for the decision. In order to keep Americans’ trust in the leadership and functions of the government’s integrity institutions, Obama needs to immediately explain the details of his decision.
— Norah Mallaney and Jonathan Eyler-Werve
UPDATE: The Wall St. Journal reports that Walpin’s firing just squeaked by new regulations set by the Inspectors General Reform Act of 2008: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124511811033017539.html
UPDATE: POGO’s Executive Director, Danielle Brian, dissects the Walpin case, picking out the “teachable moments” for all agencies involved in the oversight of Inspector Generals: Congress, the White House and Federal Agencies broadly. See Brian’s analysis here.
LATE UPDATE: The White House has responded to calls for explanation. TPM Muckraker has the play by play and some analysis.