President Obama promised he would end "Washington games." But his abrupt firing of the AmeriCorps inspector general is more of the same. The brewing scandal smells like the Beltway cronyism of the Bush years. And the apparent meddling of first lady Michelle Obama in the matter smacks of the corruption of the Clinton years.
If Obama keeps up with this "change," we'll be back to the Watergate era by Christmas.
News of AmeriCorps watchdog Gerald Walpin's unceremonious dismissal first broke last week in Youth Today, an independent national publication focused on the volunteerism sector. Walpin was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007 and has served well, honorably and effectively. Too effectively. His removal came a week after he "questioned the eligibility of the largest and most expensive AmeriCorps program, and while the IG was contesting the 'propriety' of a settlement made with a mayor for alleged misuse of AmeriCorps funds," according to Youth Today.
The first taxpayer-subsidized program is the Teaching Fellows Program, run by the Research Foundation of the City University of New York. Walpin's audit -- which can be found online at www.cncsig.gov/AuditReports.html -- uncovered a multitude of grant violations, including criminal background check lapses and "pervasive problems of eligibility, timekeeping and documentation."
Walpin's office questioned duplicate educational awards of more than $16 million and costs worth nearly $775,000. CUNY refused to return excess funds that it had drawn down, failed to revise procedures to prevent such grant abuse and refused to provide proof documenting that its AmeriCorps participants actually existed. Walpin advised AmeriCorps' parent organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), to cut off any new funding and re-examine past government funding totaling upward of $75 million.
CNCS, now chaired by Democratic mega-fundraiser Alan Solomont, has ignored Walpin's recommendations. The Obama watchdogs are snoozing. Expect the same kind of lackadaisical approach toward policing the $6 billion AmeriCorps expansion and new national service bill signed into law by Obama in April.The second program Walpin challenged is the nonprofit St. HOPE Academy, run by Obama supporter Kevin Johnson, the Democratic mayor of Sacramento and a former NBA basketball star. In a special May 2009 report, Walpin's office blew the whistle on a highly politicized U.S. attorney's office settlement with Johnson and his deputy, Dana Gonzalez. The pair exploited nearly $900,000 in AmeriCorps funding for personal and political gain. Based on Walpin's investigation last year, CNCS suspended their access to federal funds after determining that they were:
-- Using AmeriCorps members to "recruit students for St. HOPE Academy";
-- Using AmeriCorps members for political activities in connection with the "Sacramento board of education election";
-- Assigning grant-funded AmeriCorps members to perform services "personally benefiting … Johnson," such as "driving (him) to personal appointments, washing (his) car and running personal errands"; and
-- Improperly using AmeriCorps "members to perform non-AmeriCorps clerical and other services" that "were outside the scope of the grant and therefore were impermissible" for "the benefit of St. HOPE."
But in the wake of Johnson's mayoral victory and Obama's election in November, the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento rushed to settle with the new mayor so he could avail himself of federal stimulus funds and other government money. It was, Walpin said in his special report last month, "akin to deciding that, while one should not put a fox in a small chicken coop, it is fine to do so in a large chicken coop! The settlement … leaves the unmistakable impression that relief from a suspension can be bought."
GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa is pressing Obama for more details. Tough questions need to be asked of the first lady, who has "taken the lead" in selecting AmeriCorps' managers, according to Youth Today. Her former chief of staff, Jackie Norris, will serve as a "senior adviser" to CNCS beginning next week. What role did they play in Walpin's sacking? And why?
Mrs. Obama's interest is more than passing. She ran the AmeriCorps-funded nonprofit Public Allies in Chicago from 1993-1996 and served on its national board until 2001. Like so many of the AmeriCorps recipients investigated by the inspector general's office over the years, Public Allies was found to have violated basic eligibility and compliance rules. A January 2007 audit reported that the group lacked internal controls verifying that recipients of education grants and living allowances were legal citizens or permanent residents as required by law.
Transparency. Accountability. Fiscal responsibility. In Obama World, these are proving to be nothing more than words. Just words.