Another one of those seemingly boring, legalistic White House scandals has popped up again—the kind that was legion during the Clinton era. This one bears scrutiny because of the contrast between the media’s treatment of it and a similar but benign Bush controversy.
In 2006, George W. Bush asked eight U.S. attorneys to resign. Bush had full discretion to fire the attorneys, who as members of the executive branch served at his pleasure. He could have removed them for not wearing flag pins if he felt like it. The mainstream media and Congressional Democrats screamed bloody murder. Proving that Democrats are more likely to defend evil than Republicans are to defend good, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sheepishly resigned over his involvement.
In the past week, the Obama administration has discharged two Inspectors General: Gerald Walpin, IG for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which includes AmeriCorps; and Judith Gwynn, IG for the International Trade Commission; and made life miserable for a third, Neil Barofksy, IG for TARP.
Obama fired Walpin in retaliation for his critical report on Obama supporter and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson’s misuse of funds with nonprofit organization St. Hope Academy. The agency received $850,000 from AmeriCorps to tutor students, redevelop buildings, and fund arts programs; instead, Johnson used the money to pad salaries, pay employees for personal favors, and bribe constituents to interfere in a local election. Johnson was barred from receiving federal funds.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed that Johnson could receive federal funds if St. Hope paid back half the grant—which was never going to happen, because St. Hope had gone out of business, though Johnson still gets to receive federal funds.
The ITC fired Gwynn because of a report she issued that an agency employee had taken documents from her that she needed to do her job.
Obama, instead of giving Congress 30 days’ notice regarding Walpin as required, had a staffer contact Walpin at night on his cell phone and tell him he had one hour to resign or be fired. When Walpin asked why, he was told it was “time to move on” and any connection with the St. Hope affair was a “coincidence.”
Walpin wrote an e-mail explaining that he could not make this decision with such short notice and that he believed his independent judgment was being threatened. He refused to submit to Obama’s Chicago machine thug tactics.
Walpin quickly contacted Senator Charles Grassley, who wrote a letter to Obama asking why Walpin had been fired, adding: “There have been no negative findings against Mr. Walpin… [H]e has identified millions of dollars in AmeriCorps funds either wasted outright or spent in violation of established guidelines.”
Obama’s response was to dash off a note to Congress stating that Walpin was to be fired in 30 days and immediately put on suspension, with this non-explanation: “It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with regard to this Inspector General.” Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill insisted that Obama had not provided sufficient reason for the firing—perhaps she had lost “confidence” in him.
The White House then admitted it had lied about the reason for the firing. In another letter to Congress five days later—this one containing the real reason Obama fired Walpin, honest!—Obama wrote that Walpin was, at one—one—AmeriCorps board meeting “confused, disoriented, and unable to answer questions.” You might quibble that an executive who offers three different stories in the space of a week is unable to answer questions himself.
Walpin replied that the board kept cutting him off before he could respond. Walpin’s only recourse would have been to speak over his inquisitors—the result of which no doubt would have been the board declaring him “hostile, belligerent, and unable to withstand criticism.”
Obama’s staff called Walpin’s firing an act of “political courage” because—get this—some people might think it had been politically motivated, but really, it wasn’t! Obama should get Rod Blagojevich to recite Rudyard Kipling poetry in defense of his bravery.
Here’s the kicker: the law Obama broke, the Inspector General Reform Act, is one he cosponsored last year. The point of the law was to strengthen the independence of inspectors general and protect them against political firings. The language of the bill—Obama’s bill, just to remind you—states, “The requirement to notify the Congress in advance of the reasons for the removal should serve to ensure that Inspectors General are not removed for political reasons.”
Bush’s firing of his attorneys, while politically motivated, was within his right; Obama’s firing was illegal (according to the law Obama cosponsored). So naturally, mainstream newspapers broke the Bush story the second they got a whiff of it and didn’t remove it from their front pages until months later.
Their response to the Walpin firing has been decidedly more tepid.
Five days after the firing, the Washington Post published a blog entry on the controversy. On the sixth day, it covered the story in print for the first time.
The New York Times ignored the incident for six days. When it got around to printing a story, it opened with the very balanced headline “White House Defends Inspector General’s Firing” and a picture of diligent AmeriCorps workers assembling chicken coops at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
The only “risk” for potential U.S. attorneys after the Bush “scandal” was that they might not get jobs with an administration that had a different political philosophy.
The risk for potential IGs after Obama’s actions is that they will be removed for investigating organizations with ties to the White House, and thus be unable to serve as watchdogs. According to Walpin, the effect of this incident “is going to be immense in chilling the responsibility and actions of inspectors general to do their independent investigations.”
But to the mainstream media, this isn’t news—it’s just personnel review.