By Susan Crabtree - 06/16/09 07:31 PM EDT
During the two-year uproar over President Bush’s firing of nine U.S. attorneys, Issa said Democrats argued that a president could fire one of his hand-selected prosecutors for no reason, but not for political purposes or “the wrong reason,” Issa said.
If the Obama administration doesn’t produce the requested materials and explanations, Issa vowed to use his power as the ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform panel to call for a hearing. It would be the first time he would use that minority power since he won the senior-level GOP post. During his six-month tenure, he said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Oversight panel, has agreed to hearings he has suggested.
“We’ve had a good working relationship so I would like to continue to work with the chairman in regular order,” he said. “But I would call the hearing [if the White House doesn’t provide the documents and explanations],” he said.
A call to Towns’s office was not returned by press time.
Issa wants answers from Obama about the dismissal of Gerald Walpin, the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps. Issa argues that the ousting was politically motivated.
In a letter to White House counsel Gregory Craig, Issa asked the White House to produce all e-mail and other communications between the White House, the Department of Justice’s criminal division and the Sacramento, Calif., U.S. attorney’s office.
The aggressive Republican wants to know whether Obama or anyone else at the White House influenced the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of California, where Walpin was based, not to press criminal charges against former NBA star and Obama supporter Kevin Johnson, who previously ran St. Hope, a California nonprofit.
Johnson went on to become mayor of Sacramento, but not before Walpin’s investigators discovered that an $850,000 AmeriCorps grant had been used to inflate St. Hope staff salaries; for political activity in a school-board election; and for personal services for Johnson, including washing his car. It was supposed to be devoted to tutoring Sacramento-area students, redeveloping several buildings and bolstering theater and art programs.
Walpin’s office recommended that Johnson, an assistant, and St. Hope be “suspended” from receiving federal funds and sent a civil and/or criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California. News of that suspension became public and soon a city-hired attorney announced in March that the city of Sacramento might be barred from receiving stimulus funds because of Johnson’s suspension.
The U.S. attorney for the area, Lawrence Brown, has been serving since the Bush-appointed prosecutor left. Brown decided not to pursue criminal charges against Johnson, and the media and political pressure in the state’s capital mounted. Walpin, a Bush appointee, said Johnson should pay back money and continued to maintain the suspension against Johnson should stand.
Walpin asserts that Brown then cut off contact with him and his office and began working directly with the corporation, whose board chairman is Alan Solomont, one of Obama’s top campaign fundraisers.
Issa also questions the way in which Walpin was fired. Walpin says a call came from Norman Eisen, the special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform. Eisen allegedly said the president felt it was time for Walpin to “move on” and that it was mere coincidence that he was being asked to leave during the aftermath of the St. Hope investigation.
The administration then was forced to say Walpin would be fired in 30 days because it was reminded of the Inspectors General Reform Act, a measure that passed Congress last year requiring the president to give Congress 30 days notice and a reason before firing an inspector general. Then-Sen. Obama was a co-sponsor.
Obama later sent a note to Congress about the Walpin firing, saying only that he had “lost confidence” in him.
Issa argues Walpin’s “effective immediately” termination and Obama’s vague explanation does not meet the standards the new law covering inspectors general requires.
He also said Walpin’s treatment raises the “same concerns” as those surrounding Bush’s decision to fire nine U.S. attorneys.
“During the president’s term in the Senate, Congress expended a remarkable amount of energy and effort to scrutinize the dismissal of nine United States attorneys by President Bush,” Issa wrote in his letter. “…The removal of Mr. Walpin raises the same concerns.”
Issa is demanding a “full and complete” explanation for the firing, a list of whom the White House consulted in order to evaluate Walpin’s performance, and the reasons behind the White House’s decision to try to convince Walpin to resign through a threat of firing him delivered over the phone.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), who led that chamber’s investigation into the firings of the Bush U.S. attorneys, said it was appropriate for Issa to ask the administration for relevant documents but dismissed any effort to draw parallels to politicization that took place at the DOJ during the Bush administration.
“I don’t see how that parallels with politicizing the whole DOJ down to the interns,” he remarked.