06.18.09

Obama's First Scandal

Lost amid the Iran coverage is the first potential Obama-gate: Conservative radio hosts claim a recent firing was politically motivated. Is there anything to it?

Lost in the flood of Iran-related coverage this week has been the stirrings of what might be President Obama's first scandal since taking office.

Conservative media, including Fox News, the National Review, and a bevy of blogs, have been pushing stories all week regarding the recent firing of the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service, Gerald Walpin, suggesting that he was removed for political reasons. With few other attacks sticking so far, Obama critics seem to think that Walpin could be the first real scandal for the young administration. On the surface, the narrative seems to have the basic ingredients for a compelling story—a nominally independent official targeted, friends of Obama who were on Walpin's bad side—but is there any actual spark, amid the smoke, to turn this into a major story?

For a scandal to truly take off into a genuine conflagration, it has to meet a certain threshold.

Short answer: Not yet. For a scandal to truly take off into a genuine conflagration, it has to meet a certain threshold. Political scientist Larry Sabato devised perhaps the best way to examine these cases in his book Feeding Frenzy, which examined dozens of political blowups for common threads. His research found that for a case to truly take off, it required several prerequisites. First, a genuine screwup on the part of the target, followed by a procedural error in handling the resulting fallout, and finally some instance of lying, hypocrisy, or an attempted coverup, leading the media to sense blood in the water and cover the story relentlessly.

So far there is at least one genuine screwup in that the White House failed to give a detailed notification to Congress 30 days ahead of its decision to fire Walpin, as required by a 2008 law. But that's about it, and no one has shown anything beyond speculation connecting the White House to a crony scandal or a coverup.

The case is complicated, but to give the basic timeline of events: Kevin Johnson, the current mayor of Sacramento and an Obama supporter, was investigated by Walpin before his election for misusing AmeriCorps funds at his nonprofit. Walpin claimed that Johnson had defrauded the government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and potentially warranted criminal charges, but when the relevant U.S. attorney, appointed by Bush, took a look at his findings, he decided no criminal charges were justified.

Instead, the government ended up reaching a civil settlement with Johnson, a former NBA star who had since become a big-city mayor and was concerned the investigation was preventing Sacramento from claiming federal stimulus funds. The new U.S. attorney asked Walpin's superiors to investigate the inspector general's work on the case and Walpin went on to publicly decry the civil settlement. He was fired shortly after.

Conservatives hyping the story say that Johnson's ties to both Obama and the stimulus made Walpin a political target. And indeed, the circumstances surrounding the firing raised enough legitimate questions to attract concern not just from the usual anti-Obama crowd, but from news outlets like Talking Points Memo, the center-left site that broke the U.S. attorney scandal, and Senator Claire McCaskill, an early Obama supporter in the primaries. Both called on the White House to give a detailed explanation.

And so they did: In a letter to Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the White House wrote that Walpin had “exhibited a lack of candor” in providing information on his case, was “unduly disruptive to agency operations,” and “engaged in other troubling and inappropriate conduct.” In addition, the letter claimed that Walpin, 78, had been “confused, disoriented, and unable to answer questions” at a recent meeting.

That was good enough for McCaskill, who said the firing was “well-founded,” but Walpin disputed the claims, telling  Fox News' Glenn Beck that he was fit to serve and that the White House was intimidating other inspectors general by removing him.

And that's where we stand for now. While Republican Senator Chuck Grassley has asked the White House for further details on the firing and corroborating accounts of their explanation, it seems as if some new information would have to break forth for this to move higher up on the Sabato scale into a genuine feeding frenzy. A spokeswoman for Joe Lieberman, whom Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund has called on to investigate the matter, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that the White House “has not only followed the spirit of the law, but the letter of the law requiring an explanation for [inspectors' general] firings,” though the senator “will continue to review the matter of the dismissal.”

Conservative critics have tried to push the firing into the model of the U.S. attorney scandal that led to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' resignation, with commentators like Glenn Beck, who interviewed Walpin this week, explicitly making the comparison. But for a long list of reasons, this is a square peg and a round hole. There were several issues at hand that turned that scandal—albeit slowly—into a full-flung media target.

First, the Bush administration's initial reason for the attorneys' firings, that they delivered subpar performances, broke down when their official evaluations showed they were in fact doing quite well at their jobs. In Walpin's case, no one has unearthed a smoking gun undermining the White House line so far and even Bush's U.S. attorney seemed to implicitly question Walpin's competence by not pursuing his case against Johnson. It doesn't help that while the fired U.S. attorneys enjoyed impeccably nonpartisan credentials, Walpin is a much less neutral figure—he once denounced the “'modern-day KKK...the Kennedy-Kerry Klan” while introducing Mitt Romney at a Federalist Society event.

Second, once it came time for someone to own up to the U.S. attorney firings and explain what really happened, the entire Justice Department simultaneously contracted amnesia, providing an endless parade of “I do not recall” answers to lawmakers' questions. As per the Sabato model, the evasive answers provided the overwhelming appearance of a coverup, pushing the scandal into nuclear territory and costing several officials their jobs. Until the White House stops giving believable responses to lawmakers' questions and starts lawyering up like the Bush DOJ did during their scandal, the AmeriCorps case is unlikely to jump to this level. At best this mini-scandal has a grade of “incomplete,” and at worst, it's a “C,” a minor scuffle over proper firing procedures that quickly disappears in the already distracted press.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.