The ‘Domino Theory’ in the IG Scandal
The firing of an inspector general starts a probe that could topple the Democrats’ agenda and seriously damage the president's credibility.
June 19, 2009 - 7:48 am
White House officials who fired whistleblower Gerald Walpin last week have sparked a series of investigations that pose both political and policy threats to the Obama administration.
Describing the probe into the dismissal of the AmeriCorps inspector general Gerald Walpin, one Capitol Hill source on Thursday compared Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s demand for facts in the case to a row of dominoes ready to tip over.
Grassley is asking questions, a team of Senate investigators is poring over documents in the case, and where the investigation proceeds now “depends on what dominoes fall next,” explained the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Already, the FBI is looking into charges that Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson deleted e-mails relevant to an investigation by Walpin, whose dismissal appears to have violated a law passed last year (and co-sponsored by then-Sen. Barack Obama) to protect inspectors general from political retribution. Meanwhile, Grassley has expanded his own probe to include questions of whether the administration is undermining the independence of other government watchdogs.
Beyond the legal and political ramifications, Republicans in Washington acknowledge that the potential scandal could aid their policy battle against the effort by the White House and congressional Democrats to push sweeping new proposals on health care, energy and financial regulation.
In background discussions Thursday, several GOP strategists spoke of the contrast between Democrats’ effort to impose new government “reforms” while, at the same time, the Obama administration appears to be muzzling inspectors generals, who are tasked with providing independent oversight to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in federal agencies.
The timing of the Walpin firing and the resulting Grassley probe could hardly have been worse for President Obama. On Wednesday — the same day the president unveiled an ambitious plan to overhaul regulations on the nation’s financial system — Grassley fired off a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asking questions about documents reportedly withheld from auditors in the office of Neil Barofsky, special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP).
Grassley has long been a champion of the inspectors general program and has supported numerous government whistleblowers during his five terms in the Senate. Grassley’s team on the IG probe is led by Charles Murphy, a veteran Capitol Hill investigator. Both Grassley and Murphy were unavailable for comment Thursday, but sources with knowledge of the investigation expressed confidence in the meticulous research of Murphy’s team.
When there’s this much smoke in Washington, there’s usually a scandalous fire, and reporters have raced toward the Grassley investigation like firefighters scrambling for their trucks on a three-alarm blaze. Just one week after Walpin was fired, the IG probe has already generated extensive news coverage:
- Byron York of the Washington Examiner has filed multiple reports on Walpin and the Grassley investigation;
- Michelle Malkin devoted her weekly syndicated column to outlining the Walpin case;
- Walpin was interviewed by Glenn Beck on Fox News and by Lou Dobbs on CNN;
- ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper reported on the conflict between Barofsky and Geithner;
- Top talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh did a long segment about the Walpin case during his Thursday show, citing accounts by York, Matthew Vadum of the American Spectator, bloggers Dan Riehl, John Hinderaker, and others;
- The Washington Times interviewed a witness who contradicted White House claims that Walpin was “confused and disoriented” during a May meeting; and
- The Chicago Tribune, the Sacramento Bee and the Washington Post, among other newspapers, have produced major stories about the case.
Dozens of reporters from various news organizations are now turning the Grassley investigation into front-page headlines, and other members of Congress — including California Rep. Darrell Issa — are beginning to pay attention to Grassley’s IG probe. Administration officials are being forced to deploy defensively during a summer when they had expected to be on offense, advancing their legislative agenda.
Polls show voters increasingly skeptical of the administration’s policy agenda, and even the popular new president’s job-approval ratings have declined slightly in recent weeks. If the IG investigation uncovers a serious scandal, it could do permanent damage to public perception of Obama as a reformer who promised to bring “Change We Can Believe In.”
Depending on “what dominoes fall next,” Republicans on Capitol Hill may have discovered in the 75-year-old Walpin the one domino that topples the whole stack.