Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 8:06 pm

Gerald Walpin and investigative independence

Fred has been asking me for some time to blog about Gerald Walpin, the AmeriCorps inspector general who was abruptly fired by the Obama White House after reporting that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson had misused AmeriCorps funds.

I’ve read things he has sent me as well as documents obtained by The Washington Post (which, I’ll quickly grant, may not paint the full picture). Here are my thoughts:

  • In the greater scheme of things, it’s a penny-ante case, and in the context of things like bricks of cash going missing in Iraq, to say nothing of torture and warrantless wiretapping and Goldman Sachs’ screwing of the American taxpayer, it’s therefore hard for me to care about this case in and of itself. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
  • Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m still not sure whether Walpin’s firing was merited. He clearly had a contentious relationship, at best, with his AmeriCorps overseers. At the least, it may have been an overreaction to an abrasive but honest and effective investigator; worse, it could have been an attempt to stifle a legitimate critic of someone close to the administration.
  • Questions of the merit of the firing aside, the way in which the firing happened appears not to have followed legally required procedure with respect to both notice and stated reason for the firing. This much, at least, definitely bothers me. I’m a big fan of due process.
  • In the bigger picture, which is where I start to get more interested, I’m also a big fan of independent oversight. Inspectors general need to be able to do their job without interference to serve the taxpayers’ interests, especially when there’s big money at stake. (They have a corresponding obligation to be not only thorough but also apolitical and dispassionate. They also need a sense of context and perspective. I don’t think Walpin’s behavior was political, but he appears to have had some trouble with the dispassionate part. The context and perspective issue is less clear. There may be room for reasonable people to disagree on that; otherwise, I’m pretty sure the U.S. attorney, like Walpin a Bush holdover, would have filed charges against Johnson.) There’s a bill, HR 885, that has passed the House and been sent to the Senate, that would make some IG positions appointable by the president and subject to Senate confirmation, rather than being appointed by the departments they’re supposed to oversee, as is now the case. Neither system is perfect. Presidential appointment would give the IG more independence, but if any problems are discovered that lead to the president, it creates a sticky wicket there, too. OTOH, these IGs could only be fired by the president, and any such firing likely would get a lot of attention, as Walpin’s has, so a president would need a very good reason and/or a very high tolerance for political criticism to fire an IG.
  • In the bigger picture still, we need more government oversight, not less. We’ve tried to get by with less for the past decade or so, and we see where that has gotten us — pooch-screwing in a large number of areas.

If Walpin was fired for no good reason, he should get his job back if he wants it. If he was fired for legitimate cause but not through appropriate procedure, then the appropriate procedure needs to be followed and he should get back pay through the new firing date. And in the bigger picture, we need people with the ability, willingness and independence to hold government accountable — past, present and future.


  1. Simple answers to simple questions…

    Was Walpin fired because he pissed in the Wheaties of one of Obama’s cronies? Certainly appears to be the case. In fact accrding to the Sac Bee says the FBI is investigating the organization run by the Prez’s chum, which was the subject of Walpin’s scrutiny

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Wednesday, July 15, 2009 12:46 am @ 12:46 am

  2. I’m following this very closely, and I’m not sure exactly why — except every so often something pops up that smells fishy and I like to see it through. So it becomes a hobby in a sense. More fun than sudoku, maybe.

    It seems there is more to this than the KJ Wheaties urination. Yes, this is penny ante in one sense, but AmeriCorps is a very big deal in the administration’s plans for spending on community service initiatives. And Walpin was the IG for all of AmeriCorps — and beyond that for all of NCSC. He was nosing around in other places as well (City University of NY for sure), re: their use of AmeriCorps funds. I have great respect for people like Walpin, or at least what I know of Walpin, along the lines you mention— they are our watchdogs and whistleblowers, and that is no small task. And in Walpin’s case, at 77 and with an unarguably stellar career behind him, he can afford to call them as he sees them. He’s not bucking for anything, I am quite sure.

    I’ve written a lot on this situation in numerous places, and read just about every single thing I have found, all the way from Walpin’s report to Congress, to the documents WaPo posted, the letter of support Walpin got from a very diverse and high-level group of 150 lawyers who have had dealings with him over the years in a wide variety of capacities None of them had to go on record like that.

    It’s clear to me that Walpin was perceived to be a “difficulty” to the Board of NCSC in the sense of being a stickler for making sure the programs were above reproach. I’m in my retirement years, with lots of experience in business and psychology, and have dealt with hundreds of people in high level positions in organizations. My sense is NOT that the NCSC Board is culpable in any of the stuff Walpin would have been nosing around it; rather, we all know that people on Boards generally like to present an “all is fine here” image to the public. They don’t like “messy”, or even the appearance of messy. “Let’s be quiet and take care of things ourselves; no need to call attention…” So it’s just natural they’d rather have someone who is a little more “pliable” and “reasonable” and “controllable” looking in their closets for dirty laundry.

    If you look at Walpin’s credentials I challenge you to draw up a more suitable profile for the job of IG. Heck, he was around to help in the prosecution of Watergate wrongdoers. He got an award a few years ago for Professionalism, and it was presented by Justices Ginsburg and Stevens. He was elected to positions in bar organizations. This is no schmuck, for crying out loud. And he is not a friend of Bush, and he remains in open support of Sotomayer, and his political contributions are NOT to the far right candidates, nor even to Bush (in “04).

    One has to dig a bit, as I have, to get the full picture. And when you say that the US Attorney would have brought charges, etc… instead of reaching a settlement … I think it’s significant that it’s the ACTING US Attorney, who just might have his own career in mind — just speculation, but there are people who don’t him in the highest regard and suggest that he’s running for office and wouldn’t mind some “attaboys” from on high.

    I have to edit myself; I can go on and on regarding this. Suffice it to say, in closing, several things don’t “smell right” to me here, starting with the nature of the firing, continuing with the fact that at least 3 different reasons were given at various points to justify the firing, the deleted e-mails that are causing the FBI to look at obstruction of justice, statements by the “resigned” head of St. HOPE regarding those missing emails and other things, , the nature of the penalties (returning $$, that would have to be paid out of future grants perhaps), things I read by an AmeriCorps ex-employee who had his own whistleblower case buried, and on and on.

    This whole thing is WAY not the picture of what Obama campaigned so successfully on — impressing even old cynics like me. Maybe Rahm Emmanuel is calling the shots on this one. In any event, it’s a disturbing set of facts.

    Comment by Terry Ott — Thursday, July 16, 2009 1:03 am @ 1:03 am

  3. Thanks for your insights, Terry. I particularly agree with your observation about boards — they do tend toward the “all is fine here” approach, particularly in the nonprofit sector where even a small image problem can take a major bite out of fund raising.

    At this point, I think there’s enough attention being paid to Walpin elsewhere that whatever needs taking care of probably will be taken care of, one way or the other.

    Comment by Lex — Thursday, July 16, 2009 9:27 am @ 9:27 am

  4. From the “Other McCain”:

    Another Inspector General ” Scandal “.. This time it is Amtrak

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Friday, July 17, 2009 1:51 pm @ 1:51 pm

  5. There also are allegations about the Library of Congress OIG … but little hard evidence, yet, of a real problem at either place. Not to say there isn’t a problem at either place, just that nobody seems to have nailed anything solid down yet.

    I remain undecided on the merits of making some (or, for that matter, all) IGs appointable by the president. Continuity probably is important, along with independence, so maybe you need a presidential appointment for a fixed period of time — say, seven years, like the Fed chairman — perhaps with the option of reappointment for a second and final term. Heck, I don’t know.

    Comment by Lex — Friday, July 17, 2009 3:27 pm @ 3:27 pm

  6. If anyone is still following this, and wants to read comments by a Sacramento person, here is a link. Along with comments, including mine, actually.

    Pretty good point of view in my opinion:

    Comment by Terry Ott — Friday, July 17, 2009 4:31 pm @ 4:31 pm

  7. Excellent Terry. Thanks for providing the link.

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Friday, July 17, 2009 4:39 pm @ 4:39 pm

  8. Thanks, Terry!

    Comment by Lex — Friday, July 17, 2009 5:16 pm @ 5:16 pm

  9. UPDATE:

    Walpin has filed a lawsuit

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Saturday, July 18, 2009 12:05 pm @ 12:05 pm

  10. The Little Scandal That Could ( Well maybe )

    “Rule 29 helps explain why ‘The Little Scandal That Could’ doesn’t make front-page news every day. Committee staffers could be fired – and even members of the committee could be expelled from the Senate – for talking to reporters without authorization. Lieberman’s press office will only repeat assurances that the investigation is proceeding on a bipartisan basis, and the last time Lieberman commented publicly on the AmeriCorp IG case, it was to deny accusations in a June 24 Washington Times editorial that he was ‘punting’ the investigation.”

    Comment by Fred Gregory — Tuesday, July 21, 2009 8:27 pm @ 8:27 pm

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