Grassley Outlines "No" Vote Against Eisen Nomination

*** Click here for the apology letter from Eisen to Grassley referenced in the statement below.***

Prepared Floor Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa

the Nomination of Norman Eisen

to be Ambassador to the Czech Republic

Monday, December 12, 2011

The President announced Mr. Eisen's nomination to be Ambassador to the Czech Republic on June 28, 2010.  On September 27, 2010, I provided public notice of my intention to object to the nomination.

The reason for my objection is not related to the substance of his duties as ambassador.  I objected to his nomination because of the way Mr. Eisen handled the controversial firing of Gerald Walpin and the Congressional inquiry into that firing.  Mr. Walpin was the Inspector General at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS/AmeriCorps).  Mr. Eisen was at the White House Counsel’s office at the time.

Any attempt to undermine the independence and integrity of inspectors general raises serious concerns.  An inspector general that does his or her job runs the risk of losing friends at their agency and the White House.

The Congress must not sit idly by when an inspector general is removed improperly.  After the President abruptly removed Walpin from office, there were allegations that he was fired for political reasons, so I started looking into it.

There was evidence that the removal may have been motivated by a desire to protect a friend and political ally of the President, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.  The Inspector General and CNCS management were clashing over an inquiry into misuse of federal grant funds at a charity run by Johnson.  There were allegations that the grant money was used to pay for personal services for Johnson, such as washing his car.  There were allegations that the grant money had been used to pay for political campaign work.  The Inspector General was pushing aggressively to require Johnson to repay the federal grant money that his charity could not account for.

The Inspector General was also pushing to have Johnson prohibited from receiving future federal grant funds.  This caused a political uproar because some people feared that might prevent the city of Sacramento from receiving federal stimulus dollars during the financial crisis.

All this background cried out for further investigation.

I also learned that Mr. Eisen personally delivered an ultimatum to Gerald Walpin.  He demanded that Inspector General Walpin resign or be terminated within one hour.  At the time he delivered the ultimatum, no notice had been provided to Congress as is legally required by the Inspector General Reform Act.  The IG Act requires the President to tell Congress the reasons for removal of an inspector general 30 days before taking action.

Ironically, I co-sponsored that provision with Senator Obama before he became President Obama.  The goal of that provision is to make sure that Congress is aware of why an inspector general is being removed.

We need independent inspectors general.  They should not be removed for political reasons, so we need to make sure Congress is informed of the reasons for getting rid of an inspector general.

Mr. Eisen’s one-hour ultimatum was an attempt to avoid that provision of law.  If the inspector general had resigned under that pressure, Congress would not have received any notice and the reasons for his removal would have remained a secret.  But, he didn’t resign, and the President began the process of removing him with the 30-day notice.

At first, the notice merely said he had “lost confidence” in the inspector general.  Senators from both parties agreed that was too vague.  So, Mr. Eisen provided a second, more detailed explanation.

The second explanation said that the inspector general had been “confused and disoriented” at a board meeting on May 20, 2009.  It essentially implied he might be senile.

So, my staff met with Eisen to try to learn more.  During an interview with Congressional staff on June 17, 2009, Mr. Eisen refused to answer at least 12 direct questions.

I wrote to the White House Counsel’s office immediately after the interview.  I listed the 12 questions he refused to answer and asked for written answers.  I never got a satisfactory reply.  So, I had to gather the facts independently.

Mr. Eisen did provide some information during his interview that day.  The problem is, the information turned out not to be true.  Eisen tried to assure the staff that the firing was not politically motivated.  He claimed that the agency’s bi-partisan Board of Directors unanimously supported the removal of Inspector General Walpin before the President decided to remove him.  He also claimed that the White House conducted "an extensive review" in response to concerns raised by the Board about Walpin's fitness for office.  He said this review was prompted by that incident at the May 20, 2009 Board meeting.

When Congressional investigators interviewed eye witnesses, however, their accounts differed slightly.  At a minimum, all agreed that the Inspector General lost his train of thought during a presentation.  Others described it as being a more serious episode.  The Chairman of the Board of Directors suggested telling the White House about what happened.  No one on the Board objected.  So he went and met with Mr. Eisen in the White House Counsel’s Office.

Think about that.

If you think the Inspector General might be suffering from some mental incapacity or illness, why would you run straight to the White House Counsel’s office?  It seems to me you would talk to his family or the people who work with him every day about your concerns.  That would be the only way to find out if there had been similar incidents or if it was a one-time occurrence.

Instead, the Chairman of the Board asked Mr. Eisen at the White House Counsel’s office to look into it.  According to Mr. Eisen, he conducted “an extensive review," which then formed the basis of the President’s decision to remove Walpin from office.  

However, our investigation find no evidence that Mr. Eisen's review consisted of anything more than simply asking the CNCS management to describe their complaints about Mr. Walpin.  Unlike the Congressional review, Mr. Eisen did not interview each of the Board members present at the May 20th meeting.  He also did not interview the other Office of Inspector General employee who was present with Mr. Walpin during that board meeting.  Instead, Eisen merely collected from the agency details about various routine disagreements with the inspector general.

None of the evidence the agency provided to the White House related to Mr. Walpin’s mental capacity to serve—even though that was the question that supposedly prompted the review in the first place.  Mr. Eisen accepted the agency’s version of those disagreements without even giving the inspector general a chance to respond.

Obviously any agency is going to have some clashes with the inspector general, at least if his office operates as a truly independent and aggressive watchdog.

Mr. Eisen did not provide Mr. Walpin or anyone else in the Office of Inspector General an opportunity to reply or give their side of the story.  Mr. Eisen took action based on incomplete information provided only by agency officials who had adversarial relationships with the inspector general.

He told Congress that the May 20th incident was the reason for removing the Inspector General.  But, he failed to give Inspector General Walpin or anyone close to him a chance to tell his side of the story.

To put it as simply as possible—that’s just not fair.

On June 17, 2009, I wrote to White House Counsel Gregory Craig, listing 12 specific, direct questions that Eisen refused to answer that day.

Question four was: "Which witnesses were interviewed in the course of Mr. Eisen's review?"  This question followed a more general question about what Mr. Eisen did in the course of his review.  His answer to that prior, more general question included the claim that he conducted witness interviews of the board members.  However, he refused to specify which witnesses or how many witnesses he interviewed.  Then he resorted to talking points rather than answering specific questions.  He replied along these lines: (1) we did an extensive review, (2) I'm not going to get into the details, and (3) all of the Board members agreed, including the Republicans.

Mr. Eisen clearly led the staff to believe that the President's decision was based in part on the unanimous agreement of the Board that the IG should go.

That was false.

This account of Eisen’s interview is based on the memories of both House and Senate staff present at that time.  Also present was a career law enforcement agent from the Executive Branch on temporary detail to my oversight and investigations staff whose recollection confirms this account as well.

In short, Mr. Eisen's lack of candor and cooperation cannot be mistaken for a misunderstanding or a miscommunication.

There was no miscommunication.

Attempts to remove an IG must be evaluated with strict scrutiny.  When Administration officials are asked to provide information to Congress, I expect and rely on those officials to provide the unvarnished truth.  Evidence that a witness may have misled Congress is extremely serious.

Just last month, Mr. Eisen finally admitted that his earlier statements were not true.  He sent me a letter on November 20th admitting that his answers were “inaccurate.”  I ask unanimous consent that a copy of his letter be placed in the record at the end of my remarks.

He also acknowledged in a meeting with me that the key factual findings in the staff report were correct.  He said he did not intentionally provide false information, and he has apologized.  I’m sure he sincerely regrets the way he handled the questions, especially since it has led to difficulty in his confirmation process.  I accepted his apology about the false or “inaccurate” statements, and I agreed to proceed to the nomination with a 60-vote margin required for confirmation.

However, the Majority decided to invoke cloture instead.  So, I will oppose cloture because I am still opposed to his confirmation.

My opposition was always based on more than just one or two false statements.  Lack of candor is broader than whether a particular statement is technically true.  It includes his failure to be forthcoming and responsive to questions on June 17, 2009.  His evasiveness caused House and Senate staff to spend much more time and resources uncovering the truth.

If he had just answered a few simple, factual questions, that wouldn’t have been necessary.

For example, in relation to the one-hour ultimatum, he refused to answer specific questions about his June 10, 2009 conversation with Mr. Walpin.  He would only say that he disagreed with certain aspects of Mr. Walpin's account without specifying which aspects.

Word games and evasiveness of that sort are incompatible with being a candid and forthcoming witness and ought to be incompatible with representing the United States.

My reasons for opposing his nomination also include all of the other circumstances surrounding the way Mr. Eisen handled Mr. Walpin's removal.  Mr. Eisen’s attempt to force the Inspector General to resign with a one-hour ultimatum would have amounted to a constructive removal.  It would have evaded the Congressional notice requirement if it had been successful.  However, Inspector General Walpin refused to resign and even filed a lawsuit to try to keep his position.

He did not win his lawsuit because ultimately, the White House did comply with the technical requirements of the 30-day notice provision.

After the controversy erupted, the inspector general was placed on administrative leave until 30 days after the second, more detailed notice to Congress.

That is why Walpin lost his lawsuit, but that does not change the fact that Norm Eisen attempted to evade the statute.  He tried to force a quiet resignation and thus remove the Inspector General from office without notice to Congress.  Because Inspector General Walpin did not yield to the pressure, no court had a chance to rule on whether that would be appropriate.

I’m also opposed to this nomination because of the way the White House decided to avoid these issues last year with a recess appointment.  Senate confirmation, under the advice and consent

clause, is one of the strongest checks on executive power.  Recess appointments are meant to fill vacancies that arise during a long recess, not to bypass the confirmation process.

This vacancy arose on January 20, 2009, and yet the President waited eighteen months before making an appointment.  There had already been a lot controversy over Mr. Eisen's actions at the time of his appointment.  The White House should have known that there would be issues with his confirmation.   Rather than listening to my concerns, the White House decided to bypass Congress.  President Obama rewarded Mr. Eisen by using a recess appointment to install him as acting U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Mr. Eisen has had several opportunities to address my concerns last year.  He was scheduled to meet with my staff on December 16, 2010 at 11:30 A.M.  At approximately 11:15 A.M., the White House postponed the meeting until 2: 15 P.M.  At approximately 2:00 P.M., the meeting was canceled by the White House Office of Legislative Affairs without further explanation.

By calling off a face-to-face meeting in favor of a recess appointment, the White House sent the message that the President is not interested in hearing the concerns of Republican Members of Congress.

Once he had his recess appointment, Mr. Eisen did not seek to meet with me or my staff again until that appointment was about to expire at the end of this year.  Only then did he apologize and admit that the statements in his staff interview were not accurate.

In summary, Mr. Eisen took action on behalf of the President that ran afoul of the Inspector General Reform Act.  He only listened to the agency’s complaints about the inspector general rather than conducting a fair, thorough, and responsible investigation.  And then, he misled Congressional investigators about his review and about the true basis for the President’s decision to fire the inspector general.  He admitted in a letter to me that he provided inaccurate information, but claimed that it was unintentional.

This is the second time in the last two months that an official from the Obama administration has done that.  The Deputy Attorney General just withdrew a letter sent to me on Operation Fast and Furious earlier this year because of its “inaccuracies.”

I’m afraid there is a pattern developing here with the Obama administration.

When we ask for information from the Executive Branch, we expect honest, forthcoming, and truthful answers.  We can disagree on policy.  We are all entitled to our opinion, but we are not entitled to our own facts.  Getting the facts straight should not be like pulling teeth.  We need to send a signal that Congressional Oversight matters.  We need to send a signal that there are consequences to misleading Congress.

Therefore, I urge my colleagues to oppose cloture and oppose this nomination.