Walpin defeat means president can fire IGs at will

A federal judge in Washington has dismissed the wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by Gerald Walpin, the AmeriCorps inspector general who was fired last year by President Obama.  And not just dismissed; if the decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts stands, in the future the White House will be able fire other inspectors general as it fired Walpin without fear of legal consequences.

The law requires the president to give Congress 30 days’ notice, plus an explanation, before firing an inspector general, but Walpin was summarily dismissed by the White House without notice to Congress or explanation on June 10, 2009.  At the time, Walpin was aggressively investigating misuse of AmeriCorps money by Sacramento, California mayor Kevin Johnson, a friend and political ally of President Obama. Walpin sued to get his old job back, arguing that he was unlawfully dismissed.

Judge Roberts rejected Walpin’s claim by deciding that Walpin was not summarily fired, after all.  Even though Walpin was placed on immediate administrative leave on June 10, his authority removed, denied access to his office, email, etc., Roberts says Walpin was not technically fired until later, after the White House had notified Congress.  Therefore, the president did not violate the law in ousting Walpin.

“Walpin does not show that there is no doubt that his placement on administrative leave with pay was a transfer or removal from office,” the judge writes.  “Walpin has not shown that he was removed or transferred that day such that the defendants had a clear, unmistakable duty to reinstate him as inspector general based upon the president’s purported failure to comply with [the inspector general law].”

If it stands, Roberts’ decision means the president can remove future inspectors general immediately, without reason or notice to Congress, simply by placing an inspector general on immediate administrative leave.  That way, the troublesome inspector general would be instantly relieved of his duties but not technically fired.  Later, with notice to Congress, the White House could formally fire the inspector general. The inspector general would be out of his office immediately, stripped of his authority, and the president could claim that he had not actually been fired, and thus the law had not been violated.

Walpin is not saying whether he will appeal the decision.  “We are disappointed in the decision because we believe it is erroneous,” he says, “and we are reviewing it to consider our next step.”

Later, Walpin added one more comment.  “The District Court’s dismissal in no way questions the basic thrust of my case: that I was removed because I was doing my job too well in investigating and reporting on wrongdoing with taxpayers’ money.”

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