Below the radar: IG scandal developing some legs

With all the other news of the last fortnight - Iran, cap and trade, Michael Jackson - the questions that are swirling around the treatment of several federal watchdogs who have been fired, resigned, or blocked in their efforts to keep the government honest continue to go unanswered.

The case of the AmeriCorps Inspector General Gerald Walpin as well as the resignation of the Amtrak IG Fred Wiederhold have drawn the attention of Senator Charles Grassley who has fired off several letters asking for details and explanations why just as these two watchdogs were causing trouble for the Obama administration, they left their posts under less than ideal circumstances.

Robert Stacy McCain has been on top of this story for weeks and has the latest at the AmSpec blog:

Officials of Amtrak have "systematically violated the letter and spirit of the Inspector General Act," Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) charged Thursday, making public a 94-page legal report prepared at the request of the Amtrak inspector general who resigned suddenly a week ago.

Fred Wiederhold, a veteran IG, retired without notice or explanation June 18 after a meeting with Amtrak officials where he presented the report by the law firm of Willkie, Farr & Gallagher.

"The allegations are serious, including third parties being told to first send documents under subpoena by the Inspector General to Amtrak for review, and the Inspector General being chastised for communicating directly with congressional appropriations and authorizing committees," Grassley said in a statement.

Grassley's accusation of illegal actions by Amtrak, including failure to comply properly with subpoenas, is the most serious to date in an investigation that has expanded quickly since the IG for the AmeriCorps program was given an ultimatum two weeks ago to resign or be fired.

In a letter to Amtrak Chairman Thomas Carper, Grassley said the legal report "suggests a long-term and unrelenting interference with the activities and operation" of the IG's office. Grassley said his staff believes that members of the Amtrak IG office "be fearful of retaliation if they were to discuss the matters set forth in this letter with anyone, including Congress."

Grassley wants to interview four top Amtrak officials to get to the bottom of this mess. And another question raised by McCain involves Amtrak VP and General Counsel Eleanor "Eldie" Acheson, Hillary Clinton's college roommate and good friend, who was involved in several altercations with Wiederhold.

It must be pointed out that there is nothing to connect these incidents to the White House - at the moment, although Walpin was given an hour to resign by a White House lawyer, itself a violation of the law the prescribes a 30 day notice to Congress in order to terminate an IG. But the real problem here appears to be a culture created by the White House that not only is nervous about IG's investigating fraud and abuse, but that the IG's themselves have to go to make room for Obama's people.

The case of the special watchdog at the Treasury Department who is assigned to ferret out corruption in the TARP bailout scheme is different still. Here, there is a dispute between Obama political appointees at Treasury and the Inspector General Neil Barofsky regarding just how much power the IG is granted to stick his nose into Geithner's folly. With Barofsky saying there is "massive fraud" in the program and the FBI already opening 20 separate investigations into criminality connected to the program, this, I believe, is the story most worth watching.

Grassley is doing a good job holding Administration official's feet to the fire on these IG firings. But outside of Stacy McCain and a few others (Byron York at the Examiner is doing excellent work on this), it is so far a non-issue with the media.

That may change as Stacy pointed out on my radio show last Tuesday night. There is nothing reporters like more - liberal or conservative - than a good story. And this IG mess isn't going away any time soon.

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