More Turmoil In Inspectors General Land

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Inspectors General are supposed to cause problems. They exist as watchdogs on executive branch agencies, and by extension on the president himself. It is more often the rule than the exception that an Inspector General does not get along with the agency that it inspects. All that is proper. The prison guard doesn’t have to get along with the inmates. The prosecutor should not be pals with defendant.

All that said, there is currently a bit of exceptional turmoil in the land of Inspectors General. On Thursday, the fourth inspector general in just a few weeks made headlines for butting heads with agencies in the Obama Administration. Amtrak IG Fred Weiderhold, Jr., announced his retirement from the agency yesterday after 35 years in the job. Amtrak executives announced the retirement with a press release that praised Weiderhold’s “important contributions” and “dedicated service.” But beneath all the official affection, Amtrak has in fact been fighting with Weiderhold for months, raising questions about the circumstances surrounding Weiderhold’s departure. (Attempts to reach Weiderhold by TIME have not been successful, and he has not yet commented publicly about his retirement.) On Friday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter shedding some light on the struggles.

Based on contacts that my staff had with Mr. Weiderhold on two recent occasions (April 2, 2009 and June 4, 2009), I understand that the OIG has suffered from repeated and continuous interference from the agency.  After the most recent discussion, it was agreed that the OIG would provide, among other things, a White Paper and specific examples of agency interference with OIG audits and/or investigations.  To date, the OIG has not yet provided any documents. As you know, any interference such as that was described in these previous discussions is a direct violation of the Inspector General Act of 1978.

Such tensions happen all the time, but Weiderhold’s retirement, for reasons that are unclear, comes at a bad time for the White House. (More after the jump.)

Just last week, President Obama fired another Inspector General, Gerald Walpin, who has been raising a ruckus for months over the legal settlement that resulted from his investigation of a key Obama supporter and ally, Kevin Johnson, the Democratic mayor of Sacramento. Walpin had been arguing for months that the Corporation for National and Community Service (which is led by Democratic Party fundraiser and Obama supporter Alan Solomont) and a U.S. Attorney in California had let Johnson off too easy after a Walpin investigation found that Johnson had misused AmeriCorps money. Both the U.S. Attorney and the bipartisan corporation board, meanwhile, had complained that Walpin had been behaving inappropriately. Part of the dispute had been referred to the Inspectors General “Integrity Committee,” which is charged with investigating alleged misdeeds by inspectors general. Notably, Obama sided with the U.S. Attorney and the corporation board before the committee had reported its findings. Obama has the power to fire an inspector general when he so desires, but the timing of his decision raised concerns in Congress about political interference leading to the firing of an independent investigator. (The White House has said that the concerns about Walpin also had to do with other parts of his job performance, including his appearing “confused” and “disoriented” at a recent board meeting.)

Now unlike Walpin, there is no evidence that the White House tried to intervene in the dispute between Weiderhold and Amtrak. White House aides tell me they did not talk to Amtrak officials about Mr. Weiderhold’s relationship with the board or his decision to retire. The same can be said for a third set of inspector general headlines: Obama aides say that the White House did not intervene in the decision by the International Trade Commission to not renew the contract of a third Inspector General, Judith Gwynn. In her most recent report to Congress, Gwynn had complained that “certain procurement files were removed forcibly from the possession of the Inspector General by a Commission employee.”

The fourth inspector general who has made headlines is the Special Inspector General for the TARP program, Neil Barofsky, who recently got into a tussle with the Treasury Department about whether or not he should be able to get copies of certain documents. The documents were eventually handed over, and the Justice Department is now reviewing the legal issues involved in the dispute.

All of these separate incidents are complex. It is not really clear whether they constitute a trend or a coincidence. And there is no clear evidence that the Obama Administration is seeking to silence independent watchdogs. (The Walpin dispute, which is the only one the White House was directly involved in, is a thorny mess, and the one body that could have adjudicated some of the competing claims, the Integrity Committee, never got to finish its work.) But there is clear concern. And on all of these cases, Grassley, who has long been a champion of  inspectors general everywhere, has pledged further investigation.