Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Former Inspector General Gerald Walpin
An updated investigation report on the scandal known as “Walpingate” adds fuel to the suspicion that President Obama may have fired Gerald Walpin, an independent inspector general, as an illegal act of political cronyism and revenge.
“Throughout our investigation of Mr. Walpin’s removal, the White House has repeatedly communicated that the president was not motivated by inappropriate political reasons,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., one of the authors of the updated report. “The fact is Gerald Walpin led an aggressive investigation of a political ally of President Obama that successfully recovered taxpayer dollars. While firing an investigator who uncovered the abuse of funds by a political ally might be considered an act of ‘political courage’ in Chicago politics, for most Americans it raises troubling questions.”
Independent federal inspectors general, however, are supposed to be granted special protection from political interference or retaliation – thanks in part to a law co-sponsored by then-Sen. Barack Obama – to ensure they are free to investigate waste and fraud uninfluenced by political cronyism.
The firing led to an investigation by inspectors general advocate Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Darrell Issa. Their initial 62-page report last November concluded that the administration did not adhere to the law governing inspectors general, that Obama’s defense against charges of political retaliation was “unsupported and unpersuasive” and that the White House “orchestrated an after-the-fact smear campaign to justify” Walpin’s termination.
The report also warned that it was necessarily incomplete because the White House had refused to surrender key documents and information needed to finish the investigation.
But Grassley and Issa persisted, eventually prying loose new documents that reflect only increased reason to suspect the White House isn’t telling the whole truth.
Included in the new documentation is proof the acting U.S. attorney who filed a complaint leading to Walpin’s termination was actively courting a presidential appointment at the time and exchanging friendly emails with Johnson’s lawyers.
“Rather than diminishing the appearance that politics played a role in the removal of Gerald Walpin, these new documents reinforce that appearance,” the updated report says. “The new documents make the president’s initial explanation that he merely ‘lost confidence’ in the inspector general seems even less credible.”
In 2008, Walpin was overseeing an investigation of St. HOPE Academy, a charter school founded and operated by Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and self-described friend of Barack Obama. Walpin referred Johnson to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal and civil prosecution for “false and fraudulent conduct in connection with $845,018.75 in federal funds.”
According to Walpin’s referral, St. HOPE used members of AmeriCorps for political campaigning to re-elect Board of Education incumbents, and the hours spent on those elections were improperly recorded as AmeriCorps service hours.
“The money was given to St. HOPE to finance AmeriCorps members, who are basically volunteers that they call members, to do tutoring in schools among disadvantaged students,” Walpin told Eric Hogue of Hogue News. “My investigation found they didn’t use the AmeriCorps members for tutoring; they used them to drive Mr. Johnson around, to wash his car, to do all sorts of janitorial and administrative work [that] the money wasn’t given to them for.”
Johnson’s eligibility to receive federal grants was consequently suspended on Sept. 24, 2008.
Despite Johnson’s proven misconduct, the voters of Sacramento elected him mayor less than two months later. But when, in February 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the city of Sacramento’s eligibility to receive stimulus funds under ARRA was thought to be threatened by Johnson’s suspension.
The U.S. attorney’s office, headed by acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown, negotiated a favorable settlement for Johnson that reinstated his eligibility to receive federal funds.
According to Grassley’s and Issa’s report, however, the settlement included “no meaningful guarantee” that the United States would ever actually collect any payments from St. HOPE, which was saddled with the bulk of the settlement.
In May, Walpin, who had been shut out of the settlement negotiations by Brown, complained to board that oversees AmeriCorps funding, prompting Brown to file a complaint against Walpin.
Three weeks later, Walpin received a phone call from the White House telling him to resign or be fired. Walpin refused the phone ultimatum and was fired 45 minutes later, despite a law requiring the president to give 30-days notice to Congress before removing an IG and to explain the reasons for doing so.
Specifically, new documents cited in the updated report from Issa and Grassley demonstrate:
Brown, sometimes referred to in the press as a Republican critic of Walpin, actually left the GOP in 1988 and registered as a Democrat through 2007.
Brown wrote a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in the midst of the Johnson investigation, laying out his qualifications for and seeking a political appointment to the U.S. attorney position. The updated investigation report concludes, “It would be reasonable for an already skeptical public to wonder whether Brown excluded Inspector General Walpin from negotiations and settled the St. HOPE matter with Johnson in order to curry favor with the White House because Brown wanted the president to appoint him.”
Brown and Matthew Jacobs, Kevin Johnson’s attorney, frequently exchanged informal emails deriding and scoffing over Walpin, emails the report states “do not suggest an appropriately arm’s length negotiating relationship.” Further, the report states, “Together with his efforts to obtain a political appointment from the president, Brown’s communications with Johnson’s attorney contribute to the appearance that Walpin’s removal was more about his vigorous pursuit of the St. HOPE matter than about any other legitimate, unrelated factors.”
An internal memo that reveals that the White House considered issues in deciding to remove Walpin that it did not disclose in the official notice to Congress, including a complaint about Walpin’s investigation of another Obama political ally in New York.
Grassley and Issa conclude, “None of the documents produced after the publication of our initial report undermine or conflict with the conclusions of the report. Arguably, some of the new documents could actually reinforce the public perception that the inspector general was removed for political reasons.
“In particular, the revelation that the acting U.S. attorney was seeking a presidential appointment at the time he filed a complaint against Walpin puts that complaint in a different light,” they continue. “Moreover, the fact that the White House allowed the documents to be withheld for so long and that it required so much effort to finally obtain them also suggests a lack of transparency that is inconsistent with the goals repeatedly articulated by President Obama for a more open and accountable administration.”