Inspector General Walpin scandal reflects money's role in politics

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jun 21, 2009 12:00 AM

The upside to Gerald Walpin’s firing as inspector general for the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps is that he could appear in one of those “Organizing for America” ads that highlight Americans who have lost their jobs along with their health care.

It’s just a thought.

Walpin became the center of some media attention last week for suspending Barack Obama supporter Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and now mayor of Sacramento, for irregularities in his use of federal money when he ran a charity.

Walpin was asked by the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service to investigate the charity, St. HOPE, which received an $850,000 AmeriCorps grant to tutor Sacramento students, to redevelop buildings and to develop local art and theater programs.

Walpin’s investigation found that the money instead was used to sugar the salaries of the charity’s staff, to get involved in a local school board election, and to make AmeriCorps volunteers attend to Johnson’s personal needs, including washing his car.

Last May, Walpin’s office recommended the suspension of Johnson and an assistant at St. HOPE from receiving federal money.

None of this was an issue until November, when Johnson was elected mayor of Sacramento. City-hired attorneys concluded this past spring that Sacramento could be forbidden from receiving federal stimulus funds because of Johnson's suspension.

Six weeks later, Walpin got a call from a White House lawyer. The order was clear: Resign within the hour, or you will be fired.

Walpin went for the firing.

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, Congress had passed the Inspectors General Reform Act – which then-Senator Obama co-sponsored – requiring a president to give Congress 30 days notice, plus an actual reason, before firing an inspector general.

Big-time Obama supporter Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., immediately declared after the firing that the president did not follow procedure and she was waiting for him do so.

Twelve hours after her chiding, Obama responded in a letter to the Senate committee that oversees AmeriCorps that Walpin was so “confused” and “disoriented” that the administration questioned “his capacity to serve.”

The letter, authored by Norman Eisen, the president’s special counsel on ethics, clearly described Walpin as either on the edge of sanity or showing early signs of Alzheimer's.

Walpin has not been shy in standing up for himself; he told Fox News that he is “now the target of the most powerful man in this country, with an army of aides whose major responsibility today seems to be to attack me and get rid of me.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was not amused and is demanding answers from the White House about Walpin’s firing.

“On the face of it,” says Purdue University political-science professor Bert Rockman, “… ‘President Change’ looks a lot more like ‘President Politics-as-usual.’ ”

Rockman is reminded of the guy who walks into a saloon in a western and appears surprised to discover that drinking and gambling is going on.

“Should we be surprised?” he says of the firing. “No. Not with the amount of money that is invested in our politics and politicians.”

In the political patronage system, if big-time donors think they are being harassed – which may simply mean they have run afoul of the law or of reporting requirements – they are too-often forgiven, depending on the seriousness of the offense and how likely it is to be publicly reported or prosecuted.

The press could help keep things honest, but we all know that the press is working with fewer resources and fewer readers – and Walpin’s firing is not a YouTube sort of story.

“The best way to deal with this, of course, is to get the money out of politics and campaigns to the extent possible,” Rockman says.

That, however, is unlikely for the times we are in, nor is it consistent with Supreme Court decisions on limiting campaign costs – or with people's desire to not contribute even so much as a dollar to political campaigns when they file their federal tax returns.

Still, people, like the cowpoke who stuck his head in that saloon, expect virtue when no incentive exists to exhibit any, says Rockman.

Ultimately, the main villain of this tale is money’s role in politics and governing.

Obama the candidate is now Obama the president, and he is not about to anger his core backers. Words, invariably, are cheap.