June 23, 2009 | Commentary on Legal Issues
Saying one thing on the campaign trail and doing another after taking office is nothing new. President Obama has done it repeatedly. Some of these policy or Legal reversals have been for the better; many decidedly have not. Whenever it happens, though, Obama should (though he rarely does) explain himself carefully and clearly -- especially when the reversal looks like it was done for personal or partisan reasons. Moreover, any such reversal must be consistent with the law, especially laws that Obama had a hand in enacting as a senator.
Obama's latest, and perhaps most problematic, change of position is his firing earlier this month of Gerald Walpin, inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency that promotes and coordinates volunteerism. According to the agency's website, the CNCS inspector general "conducts and supervises independent and objective audits and investigations of Corporation programs and operations . . . to promote economy and efficiency and prevent and detect fraud and abuse in the Corporation's programs and operations."
Frankly, the inspector-general system in the federal government is vastly overrated and has an undeserved reputation for nonpartisan, objective investigations. In fact, many current and former government employees have been abused by personal, partisan, or ideological witch hunts, conducted by glory-hunting IGs trying to make a name for themselves in the Washington political and media world.
But two years ago, then-Senator Obama co-sponsored the Inspector General Reform Act, which was eventually enacted last year as the Improving Government Accountability Act. Part of the purpose of that law, as outlined in the Senate report, was to make sure that IGs operate with "sufficient independence to do their jobs well," without fear of political repercussions. Thus, the law requires the president to communicate "in writing the reasons for any" removal or transfer of an IG. The Senate report says this provision is intended to "ensure that Inspectors General are not removed for political reasons." Good luck with that.
At first there was no explanation for Walpin's firing; Obama simply said he "no longer" had "the fullest confidence" in Walpin. After the initial uproar, the White House started claiming the IG had been "disoriented" and "confused" at a May 20 meeting, something an eyewitness directly refutes. Moreover, even alleged "confusion" at a hostile meeting is an insufficient substantive ground for dismissal if the IG's work is sound.
Neither President Obama's claimed "lack of confidence" nor Walpin's alleged momentary confusion at a single meeting of the many that he participated in, both before and after May 20, meets the requirements of the statute in giving actual, concrete reasons for his removal. So what was Walpin doing that caused him to get the boot?
We do know that Walpin recently investigated Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, a big political supporter of Obama. Johnson is the founder of a non-profit organization called St. HOPE, whose objective is to "revitalize" inner-city neighborhoods. St. HOPE received a federal grant of $850,000 from AmeriCorps, a program of CNCS. According to the Associated Press, Walpin concluded that St. HOPE "had used AmeriCorps grants to pay volunteers to engage in school-board political activities, run personal errands for Johnson and even wash his car." The former executive director of St. HOPE charges that Johnson's e-mails were deleted during the federal investigation and accuses board members of fiscal mismanagement.
Despite all this, the acting U.S. attorney in Sacramento, Lawrence Brown, criticized Walpin's investigation and refused to file criminal charges. He did, however, agree to a civil settlement in which St. HOPE agreed to repay, over a ten-year period, half of the grant money it received, including almost $73,000 from Johnson's own pocket. In return, St. HOPE and Johnson became eligible to receive federal grants once again. Brown seemed more interested in ending the mayor's ineligibility than in enforcing federal law; the wisdom of letting an organization receive federal funds when it is taking ten years to repay prior federal grants that were wrongly used seems highly questionable.
The chairman of AmeriCorps, Alan Solomont, another supporter of President Obama, who bundled more than $800,000 for the president's campaign and his inauguration, is also upset at Walpin. The IG recently issued another report critical of AmeriCorps's largest grant program, which has sent $80 million to the City University of New York. The meeting at which the IG was supposedly "disoriented" was the one where he was chastising Solomont and the board of CNCS for not exercising proper oversight over AmeriCorps grants.
To review: Walpin discovered taxpayer funds being misused by a political supporter of the president, questioned the validity of another large program funded with AmeriCorps dollars, and criticized the oversight of the CNCS board, which is chaired by one of the president's largest contributors. The president then, without a meaningful explanation or other justification, fired Walpin.
Under such circumstances, the summary termination of an IG appears to any reasonable observer to be political revenge at best -- and possibly worse, if it's intended to prevent further investigation, cover up wrongdoing, or signal other would-be investigators to watch their backs. As is true with the Justice Department's unexplained dismissal of the suit it had won against the New Black Panther Party for voter intimidation in Philadelphia, the administration's silence is telling.
If a conservative were in the White House, this story would receive front-page coverage, with commentators and congressmen alike arguing that the White House's actions amount to an admission of highly unethical conduct. Somehow we don't think this kind of behavior is the "change" in Washington that voters were expecting. But we remain hopeful that the mainstream media will finally wake up and start holding Obama accountable for some of his questionable actions.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is a visiting Legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He is also a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission and counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice. Todd Gaziano is the director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the National Review Online