UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

June 17, 2009

OBAMA FIRES INSPECTOR GENERAL WHO WENT AFTER HIS PAL

ABC News - Gerald Walpin was pleading for his job. Just a few hours before, at around 5:20 pm, Walpin -- , Inspector General of the Corporation for National and Community Service -- was driving on a highway when he had received a phone call from Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, informing him that President Obama no longer had confidence in him and wanted him to resign.

Walpin had an hour to make up his mind as to whether he was going to resign or have the president seek his suspension and termination, as indicated in email from Walpin to Eisen obtained by ABC News.

(A White House official tells ABC News that "Walpin was informed, as a courtesy, of the president's decision to replace him. Mr. Walpin asked for time to consider resigning. He was told the decision to replace him was final, but for logistical reasons having to do with preparing the Congressional notifications, he could call back within the hour if he chose to resign.")

In that email, as well as other documents surrounding Walpin's termination obtained by ABC News, a picture emerges of an ambitious and aggressive inspector general whose actions repeatedly offended officials of the US Attorney's office, to the point that the Republican-appointee in the US Attorney's office filed an official complain against the Republican-appointed Inspector General.

Walpin -- appointed to his job under President George W. Bush -- wrote to Eisen that "Congress intended the Inspector General of CNCS to have the utmost independence of judgment in his deliberations respecting the propriety of the agency's conduct and the actions of its officers. That is why the relevant statute provides that the President may remove the IG only if he supplies the Congress with a statement of his reasons--which is quite a different matter than executive branch officials who serve at his pleasure and can therefore be removed for any reason and without notification to Congress."

Walpin told Eisen that he took "this statutorily-mandated independence of my office very seriously, and, under the present circumstances, I simply cannot make a decision to respect or decline what you have said were the President's wishes within an hour or indeed any such short time."

Walpin had just issued two reports that were very critical of the actions taken by the Corporation for National and Community Service. . .

In a follow-up letter, White House counsel Greg Craig -- responding to a letter of concern about Walpin's termination from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa -- noted that Lawrence Brown, the "Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California, a career prosecutor who was appointed to his post during the Bush Administration, has referred Mr. Walpin's conduct for review by the Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.". . .

Walpin was criticized by Acting US Attorney Brown for his handling of an investigation into the use of Americorps funds by a community group called St. HOPE Academy, founded by Kevin Johnson, former point guard of the Phoenix Suns, who was elected Mayor of Sacramento last November and is an ally of the president's.

In that April 29 letter from Brown to Kenneth Kaiser, chair of the Integrity Committee for the Counsel of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, the Acting US Attorney wrote "to express my Office's concerns about the conduct" of Walpin in the handling of the Johnson case.

"In our experience," Brown wrote in the letter obtained by ABC News, "the role of an Inspector General is to conduct an unbiased investigation, and then forward that investigation to my Office for a determination as to whether the facts warrant a criminal prosecution, civil suit or declination. Similarly, I understand that after conducting such an unbiased investigation, the Inspector General is not intended to act as an advocate for suspension or debarment. However, in this case Mr. Walpin viewed his role very differently. He sought to act as the investigator, advocate, judge, jury and town crier."

In April of this year, St. HOPE Academy agreed to pay a $423,836.50 settlement -- $72,836.50 of which would be paid personally by Mayor Johnson. . .

On August 25 Brown's office met with Walpin and two investigators and "expressed our concerns that the conclusions in their report seemed overstated and did not accurately reflect all the information gathered in their investigation." For example, Brown wrote, Walpin's office had not actually done an audit to establish how much Americorps money was actually misspent.

The next time Brown heard from Walpin's office, Brown wrote, was through the Bee a from a press release in which Walpin advocated to have St. HOPE, Johnson and Gonzales placed on the list of parties suspended from receiving federal funds -- a serious move that Brown suggests his office did not know about until reading it in a press release. . .

Ultimately the US Attorney's office determined that "a significant portion of the AmeriCorps grant funds were appropriately expended." They concluded that Walpin's investigation was wanting. For instance, Walpin's referral of his investigation to the US Attorney's office concluded that St. HOPE Americorps members performed no tutoring," but the principal of an elementary school told the US Attorney's office that wasn't true, that St. HOPE AmeriCorps members had performed tutoring at his school. Upon further investigation, Brown wrote, the US Attorney's office found that Walpin had received a similar statement from the principal "but did not include it in their report or disclose it" to his office. . .

"IG offices are not intended to shy away from communication to the public through the media," Walpin wrote.

He disputed that he hadn't informed the US Attorney's office that he was considering asking the Corporation for National and Community Service to have Kevin Johnson and St. HOPE suspended from receiving federal funds. "The only thing that the United States Attorney's Office did not know was whether and when the Corporation would act."

As for the exculpatory testimony of the principal, Walpin said he found it irrelevant since the principal had told them that he had not "physically observed members on a daily basis...conducting tutoring."

Sacramento Bee, June 17 - Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence B. Brown confirmed the FBI is investigating allegations that St. HOPE e-mails were destroyed during an earlier probe. More Information

The FBI's Sacramento division is investigating a former St. HOPE executive's allegations of obstruction of justice, Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence G. Brown confirmed.

The news fuels the controversy that has followed Mayor Kevin Johnson since 2008, when his brainchild St. HOPE Academy first was investigated for misuse of public funds.

That investigation appeared to end in April when Brown's office announced a settlement with Johnson, St. HOPE and former executive director Dana Gonzalez.

The settlement, hotly contested by the office of the inspector general for the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, required the repayment of more than $400,000 in misused grants for Americorps volunteers.

However, Rick Maya, who officially left his position as executive director with St. HOPE last week, alleged in an April resignation letter that a member of the charter schools' board deleted Johnson's e-mails during the federal investigation. Those claims, uncovered by a public records request by The Bee, caught the interest of Brown's office, who asked the FBI's Sacramento division to look into it. . .

Johnson's office and an attorney who represented St. HOPE Academy during the Americorps investigation both said they would cooperate fully with what they characterized as a "preliminary inquiry" by the FBI. . .

Maya alleged in his resignation letter that on Aug. 22, while the academy was under federal subpoena in the AmeriCorps investigation, he notified the charter schools' board that board member Sam Oki had accessed St. HOPE's e-mail system and deleted some of Johnson's e-mails. Maya wrote that Oki acted at the request of an unnamed St. HOPE Academy board member.

Maya discovered the breach, he wrote, when his own e-mails also were deleted.

"We had to pay thousands of dollars to recover the information deleted from our e-mail system as a result of this highly inappropriate and potentially unlawful incursion into our e-mail system," Maya's letter said. "We are still unsure whether all of the deleted information has been recovered.". . .

Oki, the CFO of a local research and technology company, reiterated that the allegations are untrue. Oki said he could not comment further. . .

Johnson's mayoral spokesman, Steve Maviglio, previously said the incident involved an information technology person from St. HOPE working to separate Johnson's mayoral campaign and St. HOPE e-mails. Maviglio said e-mails deleted from one account were fully backed up by another.

News of the FBI investigation comes on the heels of the controversial firing of Gerald Walpin, who as inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service investigated the misuse of federal aid by Johnson and his nonprofit St. HOPE.

In a letter to Congress last Thursday, President Barack Obama said he had lost confidence in Walpin.

The timing created speculation about whether Johnson asked the Obama administration to fire the outspoken federal inspector general.

Speaking at his weekly news conference, Johnson said the decision to remove Walpin was "100 percent within the purview of the (Obama) administration."

"Obviously, I was not consulted in that decision," Johnson said. The settlement "was resolved in full public disclosure, and I really don't have much more of a comment."

Byron York, Washington Examiner - There are a number of unanswered questions about President Obama's abrupt decision to fire the inspector general of the AmeriCorps program, Gerald Walpin. Obama sent letters to House and Senate leaders informing them that he was firing Walpin, effective 30 days from the date of the letters.. . .

The 30 day requirement is important because last year Congress passed the Inspectors General Reform Act, which was designed to strengthen protections for IGs, who have the responsibility of investigating allegations of waste, fraud and abuse within federal agencies, against interference by political appointees or the White House. Part of the act was a requirement that the president give Congress 30 days' notice before dismissing an IG. One of the co-sponsors of the Act was then-Sen. Barack Obama.

The act also requires the president to outline the cause for his decision to remove an IG. Beyond saying that he did not have the "fullest confidence" in Walpin, Obama gave no reason for his action. . .

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, a strong advocate of inspectors general. . . fired off a letter to the president ay saying that, "I was troubled to learn that [Wednesday] night your staff reportedly issued an ultimatum to the Americorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin that he had one hour to resign or be terminated," Grassley wrote. "As you know, Inspectors General were created by Congress as a means to combat waste, fraud, and abuse and to be independent watchdogs ensuring that federal agencies were held accountable for their actions. Inspectors General were designed to have a dual role reporting to both the President and Congress so that they would be free from undue political pressure. This independence is the hallmark of all Inspectors General and is essential so they may operate independently, without political pressure or interference from agencies attempting to keep their failings from public scrutiny."

Grassley's version of events suggests that the White House first tried to muscle Walpin out of his job without having to go through the 30-day process. It was only when Walpin refused to resign that the White House then notified Congress of the president's intention to fire Walpin.

The bigger question is why the president is doing this and why he is attempting to do it so quickly. Senate sources now believe Obama is firing Walpin over Walpin's investigation of Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and a prominent supporter of the president.
Johnson, now the mayor of Sacramento, California, started a non-profit organization called St. Hope. The group's mission, according to its website, is "to revitalize inner-city communities through public education, civic leadership, economic development and the arts." As part of its work, St. Hope received a grant of about $850,000 from Americorps.

Last year, Walpin began an investigation of how Johnson's group spent the money. According to the Associated Press, "[Walpin] found that Johnson, a former all-star point guard for the Phoenix Suns, had used AmeriCorps grants to pay volunteers to engage in school-board political activities, run personal errands for Johnson and even wash his car." Walpin asked federal prosecutors to investigate. In April, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, a Bush holdover, declined to file any criminal charges in the matter and also criticized Walpin's investigation.

That might suggest that St. HOPE was OK, and it was Walpin who was in the wrong. But at the same time prosecutors decided not to file any charges against St. HOPE, the U.S. attorney's office also entered into a settlement with St. HOPE in which the group also agreed to pay back about half of the $850,000 it had received from Americorps.

ABC News - After being briefed on President Obama's firing last week of Gerald Walpin, Inspector General of the Corporation for National and Community Service, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the president did not abide by the same law that he co-sponsored - and she wrote - about firing Inspectors General.

"The White House has failed to follow the proper procedure in notifying Congress as to the removal of the Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service," McCaskill said. "The legislation which was passed last year requires that the president give a reason for the removal."

McCaskill, a key Obama ally, said that the president's stated reason for the termination, "Loss of confidence' is not a sufficient reason."

BACK STORY


The Review became interested in Kevin Johnson some time ago because of his close relationship with DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee and her ties to St. HOPE, which she hoped would take over some DC public schools. Note how charter school achievement can be manipulated by simply reducing the number of slow learners. St HOPE is not the only charter using this technique. In DC, for example, charter funding is based on initial enrollment, but the charters then dump students back on the public system over the course of the year.

Sacramento Bee, 2007 - The Sacramento City Unified school board is reviewing one of its most politically charged decisions: whether it made the right call in 2003 in giving the city's namesake high school to a nonprofit group run by a retired basketball star. .
Kevin Johnson's St. HOPE Corp. has asked permission to run Sacramento High as a charter school for another five years. The board will decide by the end of December whether to renew the charter, which allows St. HOPE to run the school free from many of the regulations governing traditional public schools.

The charter school's success has become a matter of great debate. Some of the teachers who bought into Johnson's vision of giving disadvantaged kids a private school-style education for free left after a couple of years. They say St. HOPE hasn't lived up to its promise.

Some students who tried the school have pulled out, and Sacramento Charter High School has not attracted the nearly 2,000 students it was intended to serve. But the roughly 1,100 students there now say it's a place where they feel safe, cared for and academically challenged. . .

Over the past four years, as the portion of Sac High graduates going to college has gone up, SAT scores have gone down. On California's standardized tests, Sacramento High students are improving, but so are all students in the state. So even though the percentage of kids proficient in math and English has risen, Sacramento High scores remain in the bottom 20 percent statewide the same ranking the school has had since 2002, when it still was run by Sacramento City Unified.

When Sacramento High reopened in the fall of 2003 as an independent charter school, St. HOPE made many changes intended to improve that shoddy performance. It made the school day longer, hired nonunion teachers who were available to students around the clock, and paid for kids to go on college tours. . .

Among Sac High's class of 2007 the first to graduate under four years of St. HOPE leadership the school reported that 70 percent of graduates went on to a four-year college. But a closer look shows that the class of 2007 which started with 505 freshmen, according to state data shrank by 48 percent over four years. Only 262 graduated. . .

Critics say St. HOPE allows only well-behaved students to stay at the charter school, leaving problem kids to fill Sacramento's neighborhood schools.

And some teachers who joined Sac High when it became a charter school have left disillusioned and bitter. They thought they were signing up for a revolution in public education, several former teachers said. Instead they found erratic leadership, classrooms without enough desks or books, and frequent 12-hour work days.

"It was intensely mismanaged from Day One," said Barbara Modlin, who quit after 2 1/2 years teaching English. "I felt like the doors were opened and the teachers were pushed (into the classroom) and the doors were closed. We were given no support."

When enrollment dropped, former teachers said, St. HOPE asked teachers to recruit middle-schoolers as they walked home from school.

"It was demeaning. I'm a professional educator and I'm supposed to stand on a street corner and recruit kids?" said Mara Harvey, who taught history at the charter school for two years.

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