One of the mysteries of President Obama's abrupt June 2009 firing of AmeriCorps inspector general Gerald Walpin concerns the dispute at the bottom of it all: Walpin's aggressive investigation of the misuse of AmeriCorps dollars by Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, California and an Obama political ally. Johnson was accused of misusing federal grants for St. HOPE, the nonprofit educational organization he founded. Walpin found that Johnson and St. HOPE had failed to use the federal money for the purposes specified in their grant, and had also used federally-funded AmeriCorps staff for, among other things, “driving [Johnson] to personal appointments, washing his car, and running personal errands.” Walpin's investigation led to Johnson being banned from receiving any more federal dollars.
But then the acting United States Attorney in Sacramento, Lawrence Brown, came to Johnson's aid. Brown made a deal with Johnson, cut Walpin out of the process, helped lift the ban on Johnson receiving federal money, and then attacked Walpin, filing an ethics complaint against him. Without Brown's actions, it's possible that Walpin's investigation might have led to significantly more trouble for Johnson.
What was going on? We now have some new clues. Republican investigators for the Senate Finance Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have released a supplement to the 62-page report on the Walpin case they filed last November, and it shows that, at the same time he was blocking Walpin, Brown was seeking an appointment from the Obama White House as the permanent U.S. Attorney. In other words, when Brown let Obama ally Kevin Johnson off the hook, he was hoping to get a job from the Obama White House.
In a January 5, 2009 letter to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Brown's home-state senator and a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Brown wrote, “I write to express my interest in appointment as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California” — a presidentially-appointed position. In the letter, Brown took care to highlight his Democratic credentials. “As this is a political appointment,” Brown wrote:
I will note that for the past two years, I have been registered as Decline to State. From 1988-2007, I was a registered Democrat and from 1982-1988, a Republican. As may be evident, I am not a rigid ideologue and discovered that I simply did not fit neatly within either party. I chose to ultimately become an independent because I felt that in my line of work, namely the administration of justice, neither party has a monopoly and its handiwork must be performed in non-partisan fashion. I count myself in the ranks of those who have grown weary of the overly-simplistic “red state/blue state” debates over complex issues and enthusiastically embrace President-elect Obama's call to abandon such labels and become the united states [sic] of America.
The Republican report says that Brown's letter “raises new questions about his potential motivations. It would be reasonable for an already skeptical public to wonder whether Brown excluded Inspector General Walpin from negotiations and settled the St. HOPE matter with Johnson in order to curry favor with the White House because Brown wanted the president to appoint him U.S. Attorney.”
The investigators also discovered emails between Brown and Matthew Jacobs, who was Kevin Johnson's attorney. The Johnson camp was obviously unhappy with Walpin's investigation, and the report cites emails showing Brown apparently agreeing with Jacobs' complaints.
On March 24, 2009, Jacobs wrote an email to Brown which Jacobs headlined, “Reasons You Should Either (1) Call out Walpin Publicly, or (2) Tell Him to Take His Case Back Home.” “Larry, I expressed my outrage over Walpin's letter to the editor to Ken, who I'm sure has communicated it to you,” Jacobs told Brown, “but that did not have the fully cathartic effect I desired, so I must try another tack.” Jacobs then launched into a series of complaints about Walpin's investigation ending with “WTF is wrong with this guy! First, he tried to effect [sic] the election; now he's messing around with the entire region's federal funding! Over this case?!” Jacobs urged Brown “to stand up and say this isn't right.”
Less than ten minutes later, Brown responded: “Message heard loud and clear, Matt. I am at a complete loss and do in fact plan to speak to Gerald.” The next day, Brown wrote to Jacobs again: “Off the record, as they say, I have spoken w/Mr. Walpin this morning and expressed my views in no uncertain terms. I am not going to get into details of what was said.”
Brown later wrote a long and accusatory complaint against Walpin to an organization called the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE). He accused Walpin of conducting a biased investigation and seeking “to act as the investigator, advocate, judge, jury and town crier.” When Walpin was fired, the White House cited Brown's complaint to CIGIE as proof of problems with Walpin's investigation. “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 (CIGIE),” then-White House counsel Gregory Craig wrote in a June 2009 letter to Republican Sen. Charles Grassley. “We are aware of the circumstances leading to that referral and of Mr. Walpin’s conduct throughout his tenure and can assure you that that the President’s decision was carefully considered.”
Walpin was later cleared of all the charges against him. In the end, Brown did not get the U.S. Attorney job. He is now a judge on the Sacramento Superior Court.
The new report concludes that, “In light of these emails, it now appears that Brown was actually parroting to CIGIE supposed grievances first presented to him by Kevin Johnson's attorney….Together with his efforts to obtain a political appointment from the president, Brown's communications with Johnson's attorney contribute to the appearance that Walpin's removal was more about his vigorous pursuit of the St. HOPE matter than about any other legitimate, unrelated factors.”