Another Obama scandal in the making?

Remember the hoo-ha about the Bush administration’s decision to fire a handful of US attorneys (as opposed to the noncontroversial Clinton decision to fire almost all the US attorneys)?  Well, Obama’s in a firing mood now, too.

I wonder if Republicans will have the cojones to check out whether the following is a legitimate firing, or whether Obama is using his political power to fire an inspector general who has discovered millions in wasted taxpayer dollars and, incidentally, embarrassed one of Obama’s political friends:

President Barack Obama plans to fire the inspector general who investigates AmeriCorps and other national service programs amid a controversy between the IG and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is an Obama supporter and former NBA basketball star. The IG, Gerald Walpin, was criticized by the U.S. attorney in Sacramento for the way he handled an investigation of Johnson and his nonprofit group, St. HOPE Academy, which received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants from the Corporation for National Community Service. The corporation runs the AmeriCorps program.

On Thursday, Obama said in a letter to Congress that he had lost confidence in Walpin. Neither the president nor deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest would give details.

As for Obama’s failure to explain why he had lost confidence in Walpin, that’s a bit of a problem.  The law requires that a president provide substantive reasons for removing an inspector general precisely to avoid the cloud of suspicion (already rising here) that the firing is politically motivated.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is not pleased by the President’s current refusal to provide details justifying his decision to fire Walpin:

Grassley said Walpin had identified millions of dollars in AmeriCorps funds that were wasted or misspent and “it appears he has been doing a good job.”

There’s no doubt that the charges against Mayor Johnson, if true, are yet another blot on the Democratic party name.  (They’re also another blot on Johnson’s name, since he might have a problem with the ladies.  I say might because it’s easy for attention seekers to launch false sexual harassment claims against rich, handsome, famous athletes.)

The IG found that Johnson, a former all-star point guard for the Phoenix Suns, 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 AP article gets interesting here, because the time line is a bit fluffy.  The article states that, in August, Walpin reported his claims against Johnson to the Sacto U.S. attorney’s office.  It also says that subsequently, that office slapped Walpin around a bit for making those same charges against Johnson:

In August 2008, Walpin referred the matter to the local U.S. attorney’s office, which said the IG’s conclusions seemed overstated and did not accurately reflect all the information gathered in the investigation.

What the AP article doesn’t say is precisely what the gap was between Walpin’s reporting the problem and the U.S. Attorney playing down the charges.  The letter giving the wet noodle approach to Walpin’s charges seems to date from April 29, 2009 and was written by Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown, an Obama appointee:

“We also highlighted numerous questions and further investigation they needed to conduct, including the fact that they had not done an audit to establish how much AmeriCorps money was actually misspent,” Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown said in an April 29 letter to the federal counsel of inspectors general.

In other words, I can’t tell whether a Bush appointee or an Obama appointee concluded that Walpin’s charges were over the top.

The U.S. Attorney’s blase attitude towards Walpin’s charges notwithstanding, something seems to have gone wrong.  In order to make this whole thing go away, Johnson and his organization agreed to settle the claim for almost 50% of the grants his organization received:

The U.S. attorney’s office reached a settlement in the matter. Brown cited press accounts that said Johnson and the nonprofit would repay half of nearly $850,000 in grants it received.

That’s a pretty big settlement for a nuisance value case that’s allegedly all smoke and no fire.  All in all, the whole thing sounds suspicious, and it would behoove President Transparency to spell out his reasons for firing Walpin to allay any concerns that he is trying to protect yet another one of his friends caught with a hand too close to the till.

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