White House blocks testimony by former top aide to First Lady

The White House counsel's office has barred congressional investigators from interviewing Jackie Norris, former chief of staff for First Lady Michelle Obama, about events leading to the firing of AmeriCorps inspector general Gerald Walpin. Republican investigators from the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform have wanted to question Norris since they learned earlier this month that she met with Alan Solomont, chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the organization that oversees AmeriCorps, on June 9, the day before Walpin was summarily fired. Solomont was heavily involved in the Walpin dismissal.

News of the White House action comes in a letter to Norris from Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the House committee. “Our request to meet with you was denied by [Corporation for National and Community Service] general counsel Frank Trinity,” Issa wrote to Norris. “Mr. Trinity told my staff that the White House counsel's office has advised him that they were not permitting the Corporation to make you available for an interview.” Issa wrote that the counsel's office further said it would “consider” the interview request and let Issa know its decision. But Issa added that, “It has been some time since we made our initial request to Mr. Trinity, and we have not heard from him or the White House counsel's office.” Issa made the interview request on December 9.

Republicans are particularly curious about Norris because of discrepancies in accounts of the Walpin firing given to them by Solomont. When investigators first interviewed Solomont, on July 15, he denied having talked to Norris. Then, after White House visitor logs showed that Solomont visited Norris three times, including the day before Walpin was fired, Solomont acknowledged meeting with Norris and discussing Corporation business with her. Solomont said he did not discuss the Walpin matter with Norris, but when pressed, he conceded he might have made an offhand comment about it, or a mention in passing. Still, Solomont insisted that he and Norris did not have a discussion about it.

GOP investigators are also interested in Norris because First Lady Michelle Obama has taken a special interest in national service, and notes from a March conference call of the Corporation's board said that Mrs. Obama “will be playing a central role in the national service agenda.” Investigators also discovered that the First Lady had been “tasked with appointing the Corporation's next Chief Executive Officer,” according to a report released last month by Issa and Republican Sen. Charles Grassley. In addition, on June 4, the White House announced that Norris was leaving the First Lady's office to become a senior adviser at the Corporation. Taken together, those events prompted investigators to ask whether the First Lady's office, through Norris, played any role in the Walpin affair.

Republican investigators do not know the legal basis for the White House decision declining to make Norris available for an interview. The White House counsel's office has also declined to hand over some documents requested by GOP investigators, but has never made a claim of executive privilege. White House officials have long said that neither the First Lady nor anyone in her office had anything to do with the Walpin firing. “The White House has averred that you had no role whatsoever in the president's decision to remove Mr. Walpin,” Issa wrote to Norris. “In light of these representations, it is hard to understand a decision to prevent your testimony. If the information provided by White House officials is true, it follows that no colorable claim of executive privilege should impede your cooperation with the committee.”

President Obama fired Walpin on June 10 in the midst of an intense dispute over Walpin's aggressive investigation of misuse of AmeriCorps money by Obama political ally Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, California.

UPDATE: Issa has just released a statement vowing to continue the investigation. “Try as they might, this investigation is not going to disappear and we will continue to press the White House for answers until the truth comes out,” Issa said in the statement. “The removal of an IG who was conducting an investigation of one of the President’s staunchest allies is no different than when President Bush fired a number of U.S. Attorney’s for political reasons igniting a chorus of criticism and concern – the question is – where is the outrage now that President Obama is doing the same thing?”

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