A favorite charge against George W. Bush was that when he was President, he would not suffer challenges and disputes from governmental watchdogs. The former President, we were assured, was ensconced in a bubble. People didn’t have the chance to talk straight to him, and feared that even if they were able to, they would be punished by the likes of Dick Cheney or Karl Rove. Truth and the law–we were sorrowfully told–gave way to fear and the willingness to say anything that would cultivate the favor of the powers of the Bush Administration.
The election of Barack Obama was supposed to change all of this. At long last, we were supposed to have a President who welcomed challenges and disputatious opinions. During the Bush Administration, we were told that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” With the Obama Administration promising to encourage dissent, the punditocracy rejoiced in the thought that at long last, the patriots were back in power.
But recently, events have conspired to show that the Obama Administration is not nearly as solicitous of dissent and disputation as it advertised itself as being. Far from it; the Administration has taken actions recently that cannot help but impose a chilling effect on those otherwise willing to call shenanigans on a given governmental practice. Instead of welcoming and encouraging dissent and criticism that could lead to the implementation of best practices in the Executive Branch, the Obama Administration has instead made it clear that those who speak out, run the risk of seeing their careers in government ruined.
Gerald Walpin, the recently fired Inspector General (“IG”) of AmeriCorps, is a cautionary tale for anyone daring to be a gadfly for the Obama Administration. As Byron York reports, Walpin launched an investigation into “fraudulent and inefficient use of federal dollars” over at AmeriCorps, including and most especially “the misuse of federal AmeriCorps funds by Sacramento, California mayor — and prominent Obama supporter — Kevin Johnson,” and “the waste of AmeriCorps money at the City University of New York.” These investigations upset the board and top management of AmeriCorps. In turn, Walpin criticized the board for not doing its duty in overseeing the use of federal funds.
Needless to say, this upset the AmeriCorps board. During their meeting with Walpin, in which he issued his critiques of the board’s work, the board repeatedly interrupted him, and would not let him complete his presentation. In addition to contending with the generally acrimonious atmosphere, Walpin also had to contend with the fact that during his presentation, he wasn’t feeling very well. According to Walpin, he was asked to leave the presentation room while the board members dealt with something else. When he returned, he found his presentation notes in disarray. Upon returning, Walpin was not allowed to reorganize his notes and was told that he had to leave because the board was too busy to let him finish his presentation.
This strange confluence of events led to Walpin being fired for being “confused, disoriented [and] unable to answer questions” during his meeting with the board, a charge Walpin denies and claims to be absurd, as there were never any concerns raised in the past regarding his mental acuity. As York writes,
The White House suggestion that Walpin, who is 77 years old, is somehow mentally not up to his job and cannot perform his duties has caused great skepticism among Republicans on Capitol Hill. GOP investigators have talked to Walpin and found him entirely sharp and focused. “He has been collected and coherent,” says one investigator. “What the White House described is not the experience that we have had in dealing with him.” (That is also my own experience, having talked with Walpin for a total of about two hours since the weekend.) In addition, Walpin has also performed well in recent high-profile media appearances.
Lastly, even if Walpin had been confused and disoriented during one particular meeting, critics of the White House do not believe that would justify ignoring the requirements of the law governing how inspectors general are fired. That law requires the president to give Congress 30 days’ notice, plus the cause for the firing. In Walpin’s case, the White House called Walpin out of the blue, gave him one hour either to resign or be fired, and only later notified Congress, and then without giving any cause for its action. Only last night [York's column is dated June 17th--ed.], after a lone Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill, said the White House “failed to follow the proper procedure” and requested a written explanation for the firing did the White House respond.
Another reason given for Walpin’s firing–his telecommuting arrangement from New York–was weak and shabby, given that Walpin’s telecommuting arrangement was specifically approved by higher-ups in AmeriCorps. And again, even if the telecommuting arrangement were properly found to be objectionable, the White House failed to comply with the law by not giving Congress 30 days’ notice plus the cause for the firing. This blatant obstruction of Congressional oversight should have caused alarm bells to ring in Congress. Instead, Walpin’s firing has elicited barely a murmur of protest among majority Democrats; York himself notes that after her initial objections to the White House action, Senator McCaskill stated that “[t]he reasons given in the most recent White House letter are substantial, and the decision to remove Walpin appears well founded.”
Not content with Senator McCaskill’s praise of the Walpin firing as being doubleplusgood, the White House instructed Norman Eisen, the White House Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, to march up to Capitol Hill and tell Congressman Darrell Issa and his staff that Walpin’s firing was “an act of political courage.” This, despite the fact that Eisen was unprepared to answer specific questions or comply with specific document requests to back up his claims. Quite properly–and demonstrating the mental acuity he was accused of lacking–Walpin is taking none of this lying down, demanding that the White House admit error and that Congressional hearings into his firing commence immediately. And even his political foes agree.
Any investigation will want to examine, in addition to Walpin’s firing, the case of Neil Barofsky, who is charged with overseeing the government’s bailout of the financial system, but who is being denied access to Treasury Department documents on the basis that the documents are privileged attorney-client communications. Add to all of this the fact that the International Trade Commission recently informed its acting IG that her contract would not be renewed, and one senses a trend–a trend that bodes badly for those who are charged with fighting waste, fraud, inefficiency and illegality in government actions.
A new IG recently bit the dust; Fred Wiederhold of Amtrak, who retired “without notice or explanation,” after having presented a report prepared by the law firm of Wilkie, Farr & Gallagher, accusing Amtrak officials of having “systematically violated the letter and spirit of the Inspector General Act,” by ordering third parties to send documents that were under subpoena by the IG to Amtrak first for review, and by attacking the IG for having communicated directly with Congressional “appropriations and authorizing committees.” As Senator Charles Grassley suggests, these actions constitute “a long-term and unrelenting interference with the activities and operation” of the IG. The entire report, while long, is very much worth a read and quite illuminating on the subject. It is also quite damning when it comes to discussing the Obama Administration’s behavior towards Inspectors General.
Perhaps–just perhaps–an investigation of Amtrak’s relationship with its IG is in order. During the course of that investigation, we might wish to inquire why a paid lobbyist is the current vice president and legal counsel for Amtrak, and whether efforts to protect Amtrak from vigorous IG oversight have anything to do with the fact that the current Vice President of the United States is a longtime Amtrak patron–not to mention the fact that Hunter Biden, the son of the current Vice President of the United States, happens to sit on the Amtrak board.
Doubtless, we will be assured that there is nothing to see here, and that we should just move along. But being an IG in the Obama Administration appears to be a dangerous and risky thing. Congress and the media should ask why this should be the case, and why speaking truth to power is so frowned upon.
Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.