By Susan Crabtree - 11/20/09 07:52 PM EST
A GOP congressional report accuses the White House of doing favors for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and prominent ally of President Barack Obama.
The report was spearheaded by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The probe was launched after an AmeriCorps inspector general, Gerald Walpin, was abruptly fired in June by White House lawyer Norm Eisen. Walpin, who was appointed to his position during the Bush administration, was pursuing allegations that Johnson misused some of the $800,000 in federal AmeriCorps money provided to St. Hope Academy, a nonprofit school he headed for several years.
Among the accusations: AmeriCorps-paid volunteers ran personal errands for Johnson, washed his car and engaged in political activities.
Walpin’s firing caused an uproar, with his defenders arguing that his removal was politically motivated and that Walpin was an effective watchdog who blew the whistle on the president’s friends and pet causes.
The U.S. attorney for the area, Lawrence Brown, a Bush appointee, did not pursue charges against Johnson, instead filing an ethics complaint against Walpin for overstepping his authority in his investigation of Johnson.
“He sought to act as the investigator, advocate, judge, jury and town crier,” Brown wrote in an April 29 letter.
As a result, the federal Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency opened a review of Walpin's actions. In early June, Obama said in a letter to Congress that he was firing Walpin because he had lost confidence in him.
The White House later said that his firing was prompted by his "confused, disoriented" state during a May meeting of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
During the course of Walpin’s investigation into Johnson’s activities, according to the Grassley-Issa report, Walpin’s team received complaints that Johnson made inappropriate advances toward three young woman involved in the St. Hope program and that Johnson offered at least one of those young women hush money.
In one particularly incendiary passage in the report, one of the girls who had accused Johnson of inappropriately touching her said she told federal agents that he offered to pay her $1,000 a month to keep quiet.
Johnson’s spokesman vehemently denied the reports charges.
"There is absolutely no merit to these politically-motivated allegations,” said Steven Maviglio. “They are categorically false. It is sad and unfortunate that the right-wing minority in Congress is playing politics with rehashed allegations that have been dismissed by professional prosecutors, the Republican U.S. Attorney, and federal officials at AmeriCorps from both political parties."
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt issued a statement standing by the decision to remove Walpin.
“By contrast to today’s partisan criticism, the bipartisan Board of [Corporation for National and Community Service, CNCS] unanimously endorsed the President’s decision,” he said. “And the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found that the White House ‘met the letter and spirit of the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008’ with respect to the required congressional notifications.
“There is nothing new in today’s report, which ignores the multiple bases for Mr. Walpin’s removal and doesn’t provide a shred of evidence that suggests he was removed for any reason other than performance issues,” he continued.
LaBolt declined to comment on whether anyone in the White House, including Obama, knew about the sexual misconduct accusations against Johnson at the time of Walpin’s firing.
When the complaints of sexual misconduct were first made, Rhee was a member of the board of St. Hope. A former St. Hope employee told Walpin’s investigators that Rhee “learned of the allegations and played the role of fixer, doing ‘damage control,’” the report states.
A spokeswoman for the chancellor's office dismissed the allegations in the report as old news that never amounted to criminal charges against Johnson.
“Chancellor Rhee is mentioned in one paragraph of the 62-page Joint Staff Report,” said Jennifer Calloway. “It rehashes old allegations that have long since been dismissed and deemed meritless by local and federal law enforcement officials, including the Sacramento Police Department and the U.S. Attorney.”
The report accuses the White House Counsel’s Office of withholding information from Congress and misleading investigators after Grassley and Issa questioned Obama’s methods and motives for removing Walpin.
It also provides new details about the role several other Obama allies played in Walpin’s firing. The then-chairman of the CNCS, a division of AmeriCorps that Walpin was investigating, is Alan Solomant, a prominent Democratic fundraiser and Obama supporter who spoke with Eisen in the White House parking lot hours after hearing Walpin’s objections to a settlement of the St. Hope matter. Solomant shared his concern that Walpin was no longer fit for the job based on his alleged inability to answer questions during the day’s board meeting, the report found.
Eisen has claimed that the president’s decision to remove Walpin was the result of a thorough review of his performance and fitness to continue serving as an inspector general. He also has said that Walpin’s firing was unanimously supported by the CNCS board.
This story was updated at 5:50 p.m.