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Republicans criticize dismissal of AmeriCorps watchdog

When Kevin Johnson, the former NBA star who is now mayor of Sacramento, was under investigation last year for alleged financial misdeeds and inappropriate behavior with female students, he had an important ally behind the scenes.

Michelle Rhee, the nationally known education reformer who is now head of the Washington, D.C., public schools, had several conversations with a federal inspector general in which she made the case for Johnson and the school he ran in Sacramento, according to the inspector general. Rhee, who had served on the board of the school and is now engaged to marry Johnson, said he was “a good guy.”

Rhee’s position had little effect on the inspector general, Gerald Walpin, who filed a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney on Johnson, a self-described friend and supporter of President Obama. But both the Sacramento police and federal attorneys declined to pursue charges. Walpin, who protested the prosecutors’ handling of the case, was ultimately fired by the Obama White House in June.

Rhee’s previously undisclosed role and the Walpin firing are now part of an unfolding drama in which outspoken Republicans contend that the Obama administration has not faithfully adhered to a law designed to protect executive-branch investigators from political interference.

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The White House said Walpin was fired simply because he had lost the confidence of the president and the board of the Corp. for National and Community Service (which includes AmeriCorps), the agency he oversaw.

Republicans are skeptical.

“The claim that Gerald Walpin was removed for legitimate, nonpolitical reasons is unsupported and unpersuasive,” says a 62-page joint staff report on the firing, to be released today by Republicans Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, Calif., and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

Some Democrats are complaining as well. “I think the Obama administration made a mistake here,” said Bernard Nussbaum, a White House counsel under President Clinton and a longtime acquaintance of Walpin.

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The report, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, includes previously undisclosed documents and details, including the 30-page criminal referral Walpin prepared for the U.S. attorney in Sacramento in August 2008, and sworn statements from witnesses.

Walpin, who is receiving free help from a conservative public relations firm associated with the Swift boat ads that opposed Democrat John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, is convinced his firing was directly related to his investigation of Johnson.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Walpin said in an interview this week. “You’d have to be a babe in the woods not to see the link.”

The White House denies any political motivation to the firing, contending that Walpin, 78, was unfit for service.

White House Counsel Greg Craig said the bipartisan board unanimously requested a White House review of Walpin after a May board meeting at which Walpin “was confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the board to question his capacity to serve.”

Walpin began his investigation in 2008, seeking to discover what happened to $848,000 in grants and payments to Johnson’s charter school, St. Hope Academy, from AmeriCorps, the federally funded national service organization.

The funds were to be used to pay for tutoring and other community programs at St. Hope. Walpin said he found that there was little or no tutoring at the school, and that many of the young AmeriCorps volunteers who went to St. Hope in lieu of a first year of college were assigned other tasks, including washing Johnson’s car.

The final four pages of the criminal referral discussed three instances of alleged inappropriate actions by Johnson involving a minor, who had reported she was fondled, and two young volunteers, who reported that Johnson went to their apartment and climbed into bed with one of them. The criminal referral notes that the two educators who reported the allegations left the charter school upset with the way the complaints had been handled.

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As federal and local officials declined to follow Walpin’s suggestions for criminal prosecution and lifted a ban on Johnson receiving federal grants -- a ban the inspector general had fought to have imposed -- Walpin became only more adamant, irrationally so according to critics.

A spokesman for the mayor said it was “sad and unfortunate that these allegations are being rehashed. There is no merit to them, as the Sacramento Police Department confirmed after their review. In addition, the U.S. attorney also has independently verified that this report by [the] inspector general was misleading. Professional prosecutors, the police and federal officials have closed the books on this case and moved on because there is no merit to these charges, period.”

Walpin, a former federal prosecutor who was appointed the corporation’s inspector general by President Bush in 2007, said he learned he was being fired June 10 in a telephone call from White House special counsel Norman Eisen.

In response to congressional questions on the firing, the White House cited concern from the service organization board about Walpin’s behavior at the board meeting in May.

In an interview, Walpin acknowledged feeling unwell that day but denied any loss of cognitive power. Members of the board declined to be interviewed Thursday, but notes obtained from the board indicate widespread concern over Walpin’s demeanor that day.

The Grassley-Issa report criticizes Eisen, who also serves as White House ethics counsel, for not examining what Walpin had been investigating at the time of his dismissal, including the allegations of sexual misconduct by Johnson.

According to the report, Rhee met with Jacqueline Wong-Hernandez, a teacher at St. Hope, after hearing about the allegations, and promised she would “take care of the situation.”

At first, Wong-Hernandez said she felt relieved. But she said her relief turned to a chill when she was called to a meeting with Johnson and one of the alleged victims and was told by Johnson that he and the 18-year-old girl had spoken privately and “everything was OK between them.”

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A few months later, in June 2007, Wong-Hernandez left the school, telling Rhee that the handling of that incident was the major reason.

Rhee did not comment Thursday on the allegations in the Grassley-Issa report. In response to questions, her spokesman said Rhee had not asked Walpin to drop his investigation.

Her role in the incident may have repercussions among city officials in Washington, where she has developed the profile of a contentious and controversial schools chief.

By picking public battles with school employees and laying off 250 teachers after the school year was underway, Rhee has found herself at odds with the District of Columbia Council, education labor unions, the philanthropic community and many parents.

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

alex.hart@latimes.com


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