After seven weeks of trying, investigators looking into President Barack Obama's abrupt firing of AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin are still unable to answer the most basic question of the whole affair: Why did the president do it?
They know the reasons the White House has given: That the 77-year-old Walpin was addled and not up to the job, that he had too many conflicts with the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, that his office had once distributed a parody newsletter that contained an allegedly sexist remark.
They know all that. But they also know that AmeriCorps is one of Obama's favorite federal programs. They know that AmeriCorps gave an $800,000-plus grant to Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, Calif., who just happens to be an influential friend and supporter of the president. They know that Walpin investigated Johnson's misuse of that federal money. They know that as a result of Walpin's probe, Johnson was suspended from receiving any new federal grants, a fact that caused controversy in Sacramento when leaders realized it could prevent the city from receiving millions in federal stimulus money. They know that, amid the local uproar over the Johnson affair, the acting U.S. attorney in Sacramento, Lawrence Brown, made a deal to let Johnson off the hook, and then took the unusual step of denouncing Walpin. They know that Walpin vigorously objected to Johnson's getting off easy. And they know that after Walpin protested, the president fired him.
Common sense suggests that's a suspicious series of events. During the time his case was under review, did Johnson, or anyone acting on his behalf, ever get in touch with the White House? Did the White House get in touch with him? And did Johnson's relationship with Obama, plus the Sacramento political establishment's desire to get the stimulus cash, play any role in Brown's actions?
Those are the key underlying questions in the AmeriCorps affair, but investigators have been stymied by the White House's refusal to answer any inquiries about any communications or other dealings it might have had on the subject. Brown has also refused to answer questions.
Now, investigators are trying a new route, examining the role of the Justice Department. Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has asked the committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, for a hearing on the AmeriCorps/Walpin affair, focusing specifically on the role of Brown and his bosses at Justice.
According to a senior Republican aide, Sessions' interest was piqued by a statement made in a late March television interview by Rep. Doris Matsui, the Democratic congresswoman who represents Sacramento. Asked whether Johnson's problems could prevent the city from receiving stimulus funds, Matsui said that, at Johnson's request, she had "been in conversation with officials at the White House and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and others to ensure that we don't lose any money at all."
Within days of Matsui's statement, a settlement was reached. Johnson was unsuspended, and in a particularly unusual move, acting U.S. Attorney Brown issued a press release hailing the arrival of stimulus funds. "The lifting of the suspension against all parties, including Mayor Johnson, removes any cloud whether the City of Sacramento will be prevented form receiving much-needed federal stimulus funds," Brown wrote.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee want to know why a U.S. attorney was touting his own actions in bringing stimulus money to the city. That's not the normal role of prosecutors. "We need to hear whether the settlement in this case was tainted in any way by political influence or political factors," says the senior Republican aide.
So far, Brown has refused to answer any questions. In June, Rep. Darrell Issa, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a list of 20 questions to Brown and received no response. A follow-up in July was similarly ignored. "Your unwillingness to be cooperative with our investigation raises further questions about your role in this matter," Issa wrote Brown.
Adding to the suspicions is the fact that the only person who objected to the Johnson deal, who said it shouldn't be done, was Gerald Walpin. And for his efforts, he was fired.
A growing number of lawmakers want to know why.