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Grassley Presses Obama on Watchdogs

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 7:38 a.m. ET

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) this week suggested that the Obama administration is attempting to interfere with investigations conducted by government watchdogs and said he will continue to press the White House for information regarding the recent dismissal of Gerald Walpin, the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Charles Grassley
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa)

"I kind of get the impression that there’s kind of a crusade early on in this administration to, how would you say it, short circuit inspectors general," Grassley said earlier this week during an interview.

Staffers for the Iowa Republican are seeking information into at least five alleged incidents of interference with inspectors general at Amtrak, the Corporation, the International Trade Commission, the Library of Congress and with the special inspector general for the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP).

Though Grassley alleges potential White House interference with inspectors general, only the Corporation and TARP watchdogs are presidential appointees, while the other three are appointed by agency leadership, meaning Grassley can directly press the White House on only two of the five incidents. President George W. Bush appointed current leadership at ITC and the Library of Congress, while Amtrak's CEO is picked by its board of directors.

In addition to the five inquiries, Grassley is also concerned with the establishment of the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability (RAT) Board, the panel tasked with overseeing the distribution and use of economic stimulus dollars. He said the body will have a "chilling impact upon the independence" of government watchdogs, citing an obscure part of its authorizing legislation that requires inspectors general seeking information on potential waste, fraud or abuse of economic stimulus dollars to clear such investigations with the board.

"I mean it’s irritating," Grassley said, raising his voice, "for a president that ran on transparency and accountability. He ought to be encouraging all this stuff, not being seen as an impediment.”

In response, a White House aide noted that then-Sen. Obama cosponsored legislation last year that enacted long-sought reforms for the watchdog community.

"President Obama has long believed in the important role that independent and capable Inspectors General play in ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent properly," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in an e-mail. "That’s why he’ll continue to work with Congress in bipartisan fashion to support the qualified and effective professionals charged with monitoring the conduct of the people’s business.”

RAT Board spokesman Edward Pound also refuted Grassley's criticism. "Earl Devaney is not going to tell an inspector general not to investigate something," Pound said in reference to the board's chairman, a widely respected former Interior Department inspector general who helped expose the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

On Monday, Grassley's office received the first of what is expected to be many installments of documents from the Corporation with regard to the Walpin firing. The agency however has yet to provide any internal e-mails or communications with the White House or U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento regarding Walpin's conduct or the fallout of his 2008 investigation of Sacramento Mayor and Obama supporter Kevin Johnson. Staffers are in the process of reviewing the information, according to Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny.

The White House did not answer direct questions about when or whether they will respond to Grassley's detailed inquiries on the matter, including his desire to see e-mails or other communications about Walpin sent between the Corporation and aides to the president and first lady. It did say however that it has not withheld any information related to lawmakers' concerns about SIGTARP.

More details of Walpin's relationship with the Corporation's board emerged yesterday as board members gathered for the agency's annual conference in San Francisco.

Speaking by phone from the conference, one board member described Walpin as “idiosyncratic in kind of a disruptive way.”

"He was off either on these strange crusades or he was off in the 17th file drawer of a nonprofit in Wichita trying to figure out how they spent their money," said the board member, granted anonymity to speak frankly on the matter.

Another member reached last evening stated several times that the board never objected to Walpin's investigation of Johnson, nor ever questioned his independence.

“The issue really was for the board a series of instances in which we really began to question if he was effectively executing his job as the IG," the board member said. "As another entity of the corporation tasked with oversight, we were concerned that he wasn’t doing his job.” The Corporation is operated by a chief executive officer and administrator, and both its inspector general and board of directors have oversight responsibilities.

A White House letter sent last week to lawmakers explaining Walpin's dismissal echoed the board members' comments. White House officials said he appeared confused, disoriented and unable to answer questions at a late May Corporation board meeting.

The White House also said Walpin “engaged in other troubling and inappropriate conduct” and said he became “unduly disruptive to agency operations, impairing his effectiveness and, for reasons stated above, losing the confidence of the Board and the agency.”

Regardless, Grassley is more concerned with how Obama fired Walpin and any attempts to politicize a non-political position.

"These inspectors general aren’t supposed to be conceived as political tools of any administration," he said.

The ranking Republican on the Finance Committee said he will continue to press the White House and Corporation for more information regardless of his inability to hold public hearings and said his commitment to the work of inspectors general is a natural extension of his congressional duties.

"There are 535 members of Congress, and if we were all doing it -- and most don’t do it -- we still wouldn’t know where the skeletons are buried," Grassley said, noting he has five staffers on his personal and committee staffs and two Congressional fellows working on IG issues full-time.

"But a half a dozen people up against the whole executive branch of government is like a pimple on an elephant," he admitted.

By Ed O'Keefe  | June 25, 2009; 6:02 AM ET
Categories:  Congress, Oversight  
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***Regardless, Grassley is more concerned with how Obama fired Walpin and any attempts to politicize a non-political position.***

Regardless, Grassley is more concerned with how to politicize a non-political position.

there, ed, fixed your typo.

Posted by: mycomment | June 25, 2009 7:26 AM | Report abuse

"He was off either on these strange crusades or he was off in the 17th file drawer of a nonprofit in Wichita trying to figure out how they spent their money"

Or he was exposing large-scale theft (from programs for the poor) by politically connected rich people.

Posted by: tomtildrum | June 25, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

***Regardless, Grassley is more concerned with how to politicize a non-political position.***

Regardless, Grassley is more concerned with how Obama may preemptively silence those so much as considering questioning people or programs that are among his personal favorites.

there, mycomment, I think that conveys the thought you intended.

Posted by: TerryOtt | June 25, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

"... or he was off in the 17th file drawer of a nonprofit in Wichita trying to figure out how they spent their money".

Now THAT'S something we just cannot abide. The gall of someone who'd conduct a random audit so as to create the impression that no matter how large or small it's kind of important to do things the right way, according to the rules.

NEXT thing you know, someone at the IRS or Homeland Security or OSHA or the EPA might get the same idea.

Time to amend the IG Act of 1978 so that only agencies above a certain size will be looked at, and even then only with 6 months advance notice and upon approval by the President --- who will get interim reports on any investigation and have the power to call an investigation off at any time, with 45 seconds notice.

Posted by: TerryOtt | June 25, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Sounds to m elike Grassley is making sh*t up that sounds good the the 12% neo-conservative base that listens to this sort of lying. Hyped up, made up B.S.

Posted by: swatkins1 | June 25, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

In the words of fearless Dear Leader Cheney..."so?"

Posted by: swatkins1 | June 25, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

the GOP's hypocrisy is exposed with regard to family values just like the Dems hypocrisy is exposed with regard to transparency and corruption.

f..k them all.

Posted by: millionea7 | June 25, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Cool . . . I wonder where Grassley was for the last 8 years when Bush was raping the DOJ IG, and the Pentagon IG, etc.

Well, I guess better late than never for a Republican to discover integrity.

Posted by: Continuum | June 25, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

If these IGs are going to be fired or "retired" every time they step on the wrong toes, then the positions should be done away with. They are apparently going to become political plums to be handed out like ambassadorships to supporters and donors to the cause of whoever happens to be in power at the time the vacancies are created. More waste and corruption in the name of doing the peoples work. Who needs it? The worst part of the situation is that it's coming from an administration that promised to be the most transparent ever. What a sorry joke on those who actually believed it and voted accordingly.

Posted by: frwilcox | July 2, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

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