The Obama Watch

The Little Scandal That Could

Behind the headlines, IG investigation keeps chugging.

By 7.14.09

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"We're not there yet," one Democratic source on Capitol Hill said last week, when asked about the prospect for hearings on the Obama administration's firing of AmeriCorps inspector general Gerald Walpin. Congressional investigators are still conducting interviews in the case, so the question of whether to "pull the trigger" on a full-blown inquiry -- with subpoenas for witnesses to testify under oath at committee hearings -- has yet to be decided.

The fact that both Democrats and Republicans are involved in investigating the Walpin dismissal is, however, highly significant. With Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, bipartisanship is absolutely necessary to getting the truth about the AmeriCorps case, as with the other cases in the smoldering "IG Gate" scandal.

Sensitive political considerations are involved, given the potential fallout from investigations into whether the Obama administration -- which promised to be the most "transparent" in history -- is trying to muzzle the independent watchdogs tasked with preventing waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies.

In the span of barely a week, beginning with the White House's quit-or-be-fired ultimatum to Walpin on June 10, two other inspectors general left their posts in what appears to be a pattern of administration pressure against IGs:

• International Trade Commission IG Judith Gwynne was told June 17 that her contract would not be renewed, shortly after Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to ITC asking about a March incident in which "certain procurement files were removed forcibly from the possession of the Inspector General by a Commission employee." Grassley had also asked questions about the unusual arrangement in which Gwynne was employed by the ITC on a series of six-month temporary contracts, a situation scarcely conducive to the IG's independence of agency authority.

• On June 18, Amtrak IG Fred Wiederhold submitted a 94-page report, prepared at his request by an outside law firm, showing that the federally subsidized passenger rail service had, as Grassley said, "systematically violated the letter and spirit of the Inspector General Act." Immediately after the Amtrak board meeting where he presented that report, Wiederhold submitted notice that he would retire.

Those familiar with the congressional investigation say Wiederhold has denied being forced out at Amtrak -- personal considerations were also involved in his decision -- but the report he submitted June 18 details a pattern of obstruction by Amtrak's law department.

This department is the bailiwick of Amtrak vice president and general counsel Eleanor "Eldie" Acheson, who just happens to be a longtime friend (and Wellesley College roommate) of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Acheson's deputy general counsel, Jonathan Meyer, joined Amtrak after spending six years as a top Senate aide to Joe Biden, who has long proclaimed himself as Amtrak's No. 1 advocate in Washington and who personally announced the $1.3 billion in "stimulus" funds for Amtrak.

Led by the well-connected Acheson and Meyer, Amtrak's law department tried to require the IG's office to get prior approval before communicating with Congress and instituted a policy where documents subpoenaed by the IG's office were first reviewed and occasionally redacted by Amtrak management.

None of this squares with the law and Grassley, the congressional patron saint of inspectors general, wrote in a letter to Amtrak chairman Thomas Carper that, in the wake of Wiederhold's retirement, IG staffers were "fearful of retaliation" if they spoke to congressional investigators. The seriousness of these charges prompted Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to join with the committee's ranking Republican, California Rep. Darrell Issa, in announcing an official investigation., parallel to the probe led by Grassley's team in the Senate.

Bipartisan interest in the Amtrak IG case on the House side was greeted by Republicans on Capitol Hill as a promising sign that may bode well for prospects that the AmeriCorps IG case will get a full investigation by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman has been officially an independent since losing a 2006 Democratic primary to a left-wing challenger, and he has so far been noncommittal on the AmeriCorps case. Last month, Lieberman and the committee's ranking Republican, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, initially seemed willing to accept the White House's claim that Walpin had been "disoriented" at a key May 20 meeting with the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which oversees the AmeriCorps program.

However, when accused by the Washington Times of "punting" the Walpin case, Lieberman responded that he was "committed to conducting an independent review to make sure Mr. Walpin's termination was not arbitrary, capricious, punitive, or political." And the suspicious circumstances surrounding that termination continue to be investigated.

Walpin had protested a decision, apparently approved by Obama administration Justice Department officials, not to prosecute Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson -- a Democrat and Obama supporter -- on charges of misusing AmeriCorps funding for Johnson's St. HOPE Academy charity.

Last week, when congressional investigators asked CNCS general counsel Frank Trinity about White House involvement in decision to fire Walpin, Trinity refused to answer, saying he was "not authorized" to discuss the subject. One Republican investigator said Democrat staffers participating in the interview of Trinity "were as upset as we were" at the CNCS lawyer's refusal to talk about the role White House counsel Norman Eisen played in Walpin's firing.

A subpoena to testify at a Senate committee hearing would be necessary to compel full disclosure in the case, which highlights the sensitive political considerations involved. Democrats are understandably averse to convening hearings -- which, unlike background investigations conducted by staffers, are very public events -- to ask questions about charges of wrongdoing by Obama administration officials. On the other hand, Democrats also don't want to be accused of helping cover up wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, the investigations continue, as staffers interview witnesses and pore over documents in the cases. So far, there is no clear proof of criminal malfeasance and sources caution against a media rush to "connect the dots," but IG-Gate keeps chugging along.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.