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.

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