Strengthening Checks and Balances

Lessons Learned from Obama's Removal of CNCS Inspector General

On Friday, we blogged about the President's removal of Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) Inspector General Gerald Walpin. As I learn more about this case, I'm realizing there are a few "teachable moments."

There is no doubt that the optics look suspicious that an IG is removed after having investigated an Obama supporter, especially since the Administration provided minimal explanation for the removal. It's important to note that Congress permitted this lack of explanation. Last session, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) sponsored an important provision in the House version of the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 that would allow the President to remove IGs only for cause, specifically: (1) Permanent incapacity; (2) Inefficiency; (3) Neglect of duty; (4) Malfeasance; (5) Conviction of a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude; (6) Knowing violation of a law, rule, or regulation; (7) Gross mismanagement; (8) Gross waste of funds; or (9) Abuse of authority. When the bill passed, however, this provision lay on the cutting room floor. All that's required now is that the President provide both Chambers of Congress with an explanation no later than 30 days before dismissing or transferring an IG. The law doesn't say it has to be a good reason. To us, it looks like the President has fulfilled the letter of the law. So, if the Congress is annoyed because they think the President's reason for dismissal (that he no longer has "the fullest confidence" in Walpin) is not good enough, they only have themselves to blame. Teachable moment for Congress: Congress should fix the IG Act to include the "removal for cause" provision so that in the future, there are no doubts. (See POGO's 2008 IG report, recommendation #7.)

Nonetheless, I'm concerned that the White House made a hasty decision to remove Walpin before the Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE)--the council of all the IGs--had a chance to investigate the matter. In contrast, former NASA IG Robert "Moose" Cobb was forced to resign after the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency found ample evidence to remove him from office. Teachable moment for the White House: removing an IG is a big deal--if the Administration has a reason not to wait for the findings of the Integrity Committee, they should at least provide compelling evidence to justify an IG's removal.

As I dug further into the case, I was also struck by how Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California Lawrence Brown, who referred Walpin to the Integrity Committee of the CIGIE, doesn't understand IGs. Brown's allegation that Walpin had become aware of exculpatory evidence during his IG investigation but didn't include that evidence in his findings is absolutely something the Integrity Committee should look into. (When challenged on this fact, Walpin's explanation was thin at best.) However, Brown also included in his referral tasks that IGs actually should be doing, such as that Walpin communicated with the press; had, when referring the IG case to the U.S. Attorney's office for action, sent a letter expressing his view that the case should be pursued civilly or criminally; and had advocated to the Suspension and Debarment officer that the people and entity being investigated should be suspended from receiving federal funds. These are activities we want IGs to engage in, and are not in and of themselves inappropriate conduct. Certainly they are not cause to remove an IG, whereas withholding exculpatory evidence is. Teachable moment for federal agencies: The executive branch must become much better acquainted with what an IG should and should not be doing.

While I don't know the particulars of Walpin's actions in relation to his IG investigation, I will say that my own recent experience with him took a turn toward the bizarre when, during my presentation to the CIGIE in April about our report Inspectors General: Accountability is a Balancing Act, Walpin stood up and began berating me in an oddly defensive and unnecessarily hostile manner. Walpin was not the only IG in attendance to object to our conclusion that IGs generally do not work effectively with whistleblowers, but his manner and somewhat emotional outburst went way beyond normal professional disagreement. Everybody has a bad day now and then, but if the behavior he demonstrated that day is how he generally conducts himself, I can see why there was a growing number of people calling for his removal--including, according to a letter from White House Counsel Greg Craig to Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), both the Chair (a Democrat) and the Vice-Chair (a Republican) of the CNCS who "fully supported" this action. However, without a full explanation from the Administration for the dismissal, we can't know whether the removal is justified or just a case of political finagling.

In the end, I believe Senator Grassley's concerns should be heeded, particularly because the IG had been investigating a political supporter of the President. Even though the law does not require the President to provide more than the notification he has given to Congress, I think he should do more than what is required and provide the Congress a specific rationale or cause for removing the CNCS IG.