House Republican staffers on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are mulling their next steps in investigating last week’s firing of Gerald Walpin as Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service and its AmeriCorps program.
On Tuesday, ranking member Darrell Issa sent a letter to White House Counsel Gregory Craig, demanding the release of all e-mail and other communications between the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California regarding the dismissal of IG Walpin.
The U.S. Attorney connection arose from a 2008 Walpin investigation into allegations of misused taxpayer funds via AmeriCorps to the St. HOPE Academy of Sacramento, Calif., founded by Obama supporter and former NBA player — now mayor of Sacramento — Kevin Johnson. Walpin determined that Johnson’s program misused almost $1 million in AmeriCorps funding, referred the case to the U.S. Attorney in Sacramento, but no criminal charges were filed. St. HOPE officials, however, settled the case, promising to repay half of its AmeriCorps grants.
But Republican aides want to step up the pressure on the firing, because, as one senior committee aide put it: “What’s at stake isn’t just one man’s job: it’s how $6 billion in taxpayer money is going to be used by this Administration on an agency with no independent oversight.”
The aide is referring to the Corporation for National and Community Service’s primary entity, AmeriCorps, set up in the 1990s by the Clinton Administration to increase public service among young people — mostly college grads and young professionals — largely via grant-making to a network of state and local community nonprofit groups.
“Just how AmeriCorps is going to be used by the Obama Administration — and what steps the administration has taken to ensure that it can do with AmeriCorps what it wants — is at the heart of our concern,” says the GOP House staffer. “We think that the removal of Walpin was part of that agenda.”
It has not gone unnoticed among some Republicans on Capitol Hill that First Lady Michelle Obama‘s former chief of staff, Jackie Norris, recently stepped down from her White House position to become head of the Corporation for National and Community Service. According to White House sources, Norris and Obama have already discussed how AmeriCorps could fit into the First Lady’s volunteerism projects.
According to White House sources, Norris’s shift to the CNCS was discussed not only with the First Lady, but also with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. “Her move was not done just give her a safe landing,” says one White House aide. “We have a very clear agenda and a lot of plans for that organization; we wouldn’t be giving it the resources that we are if we didn’t.”
Those resources amount to more that $6 billion in funds, and those plans include turning AmeriCorps into a supersized, taxpayer-funded ACORN-like organization, focused on the Obama Administration’s policy agenda, including health care reform, targeted stimulus spending, and possible work on the upcoming U.S. census in 2010.
In the past, AmeriCorps volunteers lobbied and organized groups against the “three strikes” rule in California, and had plans in place to identify groups to support a second attempt at health care reform after Hillarycare went down in flames. Some AmeriCorps resources have gone to assist ACORN projects around the country, including anti-Republican demonstrations in state capitals and in Washington, D.C.
“You look at what the CNCS is funding over there: a ‘Social Investment Fund,’ which over the next five years is going to hand out almost a half a billion dollars to young people who start up community activist organizations,” says a Senate Republican aide. “Who the hell is going to be monitoring that kind of underwriting? Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff? Emanuel? I don’t think so.”
A senior House Republican leadership aide says that Issa’s inquiries into the Walpin removal should be expanded. “We need a full Government Accounting Office study on this Walpin removal, and his firing should be delayed until we have full accounting of the situation,” says the aide. “We also need to understand what kind of operations and funding controls are in place for AmeriCorps.”
The aide also says that Republicans are considering demanding an Inspector General investigation into any and all contacts between the Department of Justice and the White House in advance of the Walpin’s removal, including whether those contacts were limited to individuals authorized to have such contacts. He also said the committee may ask the First Lady’s Office to make all of their records of contacts with AmeriCorps’s parent organization CNCS, available for review.
“Finally, we need to see everything that Walpin pulled together. We have people inside this administration trying to smear him. The proof will be in his work product. Everything he pulled together for the investigation in Sacramento against Mayor Johnson, and more broadly, should be made available for review,” says the House aide.
Meanwhile, a White House source says the White House is trying to find out if dispersal of parts of the $6 billion budget for CNCS can be sped up under a Presidential request that the funds be considered part of the economic stimulus program.