Last week, professional ethics arbiter Norman Eisen asked Congress to investigate the Ohio State sex abuse allegations and any role played by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former NCAA national wrestling champion and longtime assistant coach of the Buckeye wrestling team.
Jordan has not been accused of personally committing any abuse, but a number of former OSU wrestlers have said he failed to report allegations that team doctor Richard Strauss was a serial abuser of athletes at the school. Strauss, who died in 2005, has been accused of using his standing in the athletic department to, among other things, grope and gawk at nude wrestlers in the locker room. An April report in The Lantern, the OSU student newspaper, said that Strauss once gave a wrestler a 20-minute physical, “15 minutes of which involved Strauss closely inspecting his genitalia.”
Jordan has said publicly he was never aware of any abuse accusations against Strauss during his run as an OSU coach. Jordan is a founder of the GOP’s far-right Freedom Caucus in the House, and one of President Donald Trump’s most dependable and aggressive allies on Capitol Hill. Now Eisen wants a federal investigation into whether Jordan is telling the truth.
“If it is determined that Rep. Jordan is lying to cover up his failure to protect student wrestlers under his supervision from sexual abuses, the House must hold Rep. Jordan accountable for his lies,” wrote Eisen in a letter to the House of Representatives Committee on Ethics, co-signed by fellow D.C. lawyer Fred Wertheimer. Eisen, who identified himself in the letter as a former U.S. ambassador and White House ethics lawyer, went on a multi-media blitz to publicize his accountability push, always pointing out that the victims of Strauss’ abuse were students.
It’s a noble undertaking, to be sure, but Eisen isn’t the most credible guy to lead this charge.
While Eisen has been passionate in calling for an aggressive federal inquiry into Jordan, he didn’t stand up for the student accusers or ask for accountability a decade ago, when it was a rising Democratic Party star being scrutinized. Eisen, the former White House “ethics czar,” is perhaps best known inside the Beltway for firing Gerald Walpin, an inspector general who was in the midst of investigating Kevin Johnson, who was then Sacramento’s Mayor, for embezzling federal funds. During the investigation, Walpin’s team also learned that Johnson was accused of sexually abusing teenage girls at St. HOPE, his charter schools organization. Walpin was pushing for federal prosecutors to file civil and criminal charges against Johnson when Eisen fired him. Johnson went unprosecuted. Until his death in 2016, Walpin insisted he was fired because of the Johnson investigation.
Now that a GOP figure is in the crosshairs, though, Eisen’s actions are exactly the opposite.
Eisen, a classmate of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School turned D.C. fixture, served as special counsel to the president during President Obama’s first term, and it was in that capacity that he got involved in the federal investigation of Johnson, a former NBA all-star who in November 2008 was elected the first black mayor of Sacramento, his hometown. Much like the Jordan investigation, the Johnson case involved both alleged student victims and a high-profile ex-athlete turned public official. Much like the Jordan investigation, it was marred by coverups, partisan politics, and the pressures that come with an inconvenient proximity to the president.
Walpin, an inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service (the parent agency of AmeriCorps), started out investigating charges that Johnson had embezzled federal funds earmarked for St. HOPE, a charter school organization he founded and operated. Walpin found lots of evidence that Johnson was indeed misusing the money, including spending grants meant for tutoring programs on paying workers tasked with “driving [Johnson] to personal appointments, washing his car, and running personal errands.” At Walpin’s urging, in 2008, CNCS suspended Johnson’s ability to receive any federal funds.
But Walpin’s investigative team also learned that Johnson had been accused of molesting several young women, including students, and that St. HOPE administrators helped cover up the accusations. Walpin found two St. HOPE employees, Erik Jones and Jacqueline Wong-Hernandez, who left their jobs to protest the St. HOPE’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations leveled against Johnson by young women. Wong-Hernandez said she resigned after reporting allegations of sexual misconduct against Johnson to St. HOPE officials, only to discover that Johnson’s future wife Michelle Rhee, a board member at the school at the time, divulged the details of their conversation to Johnson’s personal attorney, and not the police.
According to Walpin’s account, one alleged victim at St. HOPE told Walpin’s investigators that after she went to administrators to say she’d been abused, she got a visit from Johnson, who “offered to to give me $1,000 a month,” and also told her “[n]o one needed to know” about the payments, which she understood as an attempt to buy her silence about Johnson’s actions. A report from Republican leaders in Congress on Walpin’s investigation noted that Johnson had reportedly used alleged hush-money payments to make sordid accusations disappear: “In 1997,” the report states, “Johnson agreed to pay $230,000 to resolve claims brought by a Phoenix teenager who alleged Johnson molested her.”
Walpin, himself a former federal prosecutor, sent his findings, along with a 30-page referral for criminal and civil prosecution of Johnson, to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of California in August 2008. Details of both the fiscal malfeasances and allegations of “inappropriate sexual conduct” against Johnson were included in the document. Walpin told the prosecutors that the sexual abuse findings warrant “further digging” and urged prosecutors to convene a grand jury to “get to the bottom of” the molestation allegations.
But no such grand jury was ever empaneled, and no criminal charges were ever brought against Johnson, who was viewed as a close friend of the new Obama administration. (The new mayor nicknamed himself “Little Barack” after winning the election.) Instead, Lawrence Brown, who had been named the acting U.S. Attorney covering Sacramento in the early 2009 and was reportedly actively angling for a permanent U.S. Attorney slot from the Obama administration, offered the mayor a settlement deal that, given the seriousness of the allegations, seems favorable to Johnson. That pact called for Johnson and St. HOPE to simply repay a portion of the embezzled federal money in exchange for Johnson avoiding prosecution and immediately regaining the ability to receive federal grants. Brown never addressed the sexual abuse allegations contained in Walpin’s report.
Walpin, a 2007 appointee of President George W. Bush and member of the ultra-conservative Federalist Society, was shut out of the Johnson settlement talks. Walpin was furious with the termination of the investigation, and complained publicly about the failure to prosecute the Sacramento mayor.
Eisen personally fired Walpin, who said said the White House lawyer called him up and asserted that President Obama felt it was time for the IG to “move on.” During their conversation, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Eisen also told Walpin that it was “pure coincidence” that he was fired amid the investigation of Kevin Johnson and St. HOPE.
The Walpin firing angered GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who commissioned an investigation into the termination. Eisen told the lawmakers that Walpin wasn’t let go for political reasons, but because of concerns that he seemed out of sorts (“confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions,” in Eisen’s words) at a meeting of the CNCS board in May 2009.
Walpin, 77 years old at the time, told Politico that Eisen’s alleged basis for firing him was hokum. “There’s nothing confusing about malfeasance” he said, “and there’s nothing confusing about what appears to be the fact that they terminated me because I was doing my job because the White House wanted to protect people who proclaim they are friends of the White House.”
The Journal wasn’t buying it, writing in an opinion piece that, “the evidence suggests that [the] White House fired a public official who refused to roll over to protect a Presidential crony.” Right-wingers weren’t the only ones wondering what was really behind Walpin’s ousting, either. A group of 145 D.C. power brokers of all political stripes, including such folks as Mike Mukasey, a former attorney general appointed by George W. Bush, and Bernard Nussbaum, President Bill Clinton’s former counsel, wrote to Congressional leaders saying they were “unanimous in affirming Mr. Walpin’s integrity and competence.” The bipartisan confab also wanted it known that Eisen’s descriptions of the IG as “confused, disoriented, [and] unable to answer questions” while justifying the firing failed to match the Walpin they knew. Many of the co-signers, according to the letter, had recently seen Walpin speak publicly, including an appearance at “last week’s meeting of the Board of the Federal Bar Council.”
“We have never seen Mr. Walpin to be ‘confused, disoriented [or] unable to answer questions,’” read the letter. “While none of us was present at the meeting referred to in Mr. Eisen’s letter, we can report only that such an allegation is totally inconsistent with our personal knowledge of Mr. Walpin who has always, through the present day, exhibited a quick mind and a command of the facts (whether we agree with him or not) and eloquence— essentially the opposite of someone who was ‘confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions.’”
Even Gawker.com, a website that was never seen as a friend of the right wing, posted a story hinting that political shenanigans might have been at play, and asserting that “there do seem to be some legitimate questions in need of answering by the Obama White House on this matter.”
Walpin filed a lawsuit over his firing, but in June 2010 his case was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Roberts, who ruled that inspectors general cannot sue for job loss, improper or not.
Mere weeks after Walpin’s case was thrown out, President Obama announced Eisen would be nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. Grassley and other GOP leaders saw the ambassadorship offer as part of a payback to a loyal Dem operative for dutifully killing the Johnson investigation. Grassley took to the Senate floor to say he was against Eisen’s nomination “because of the way Mr. Eisen handled the controversial firing of Gerald Walpin,” and that evidence showed that Walpin’s exile “may have been motivated by a desire to protect a friend and political ally of the President, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.”
Grassley said Eisen called Walpin and demanded that the inspector general “resign or be terminated within one hour,” ignoring a federal law requiring the White House to give Congress “30 days notice” before removing an IG. The Iowa senator also blasted Eisen for not being honest when questioned by Congress about ending Walpin’s investigation. “Mr. Eisen did provide some information during his interview,” Grassley told the chamber. “The problem is, the information turned out not to be true.”
Hoping to make amends, Eisen sent a letter to Grassley in which he apologized profusely for not telling the truth about the Walpin firing. “It is now my understanding that I answered a few of the questions inaccurately, although at the time I thought they were accurate,” Eisen groveled. “Of course, it was not my intent to mislead staff in anyway, but to the extent that I was unclear in my responses, or that my declining to answer questions created confusion, I regret it and I sincerely apologize.”
Eisen was confirmed, and served as ambassador until 2014. He became a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and is now a leading commentator on ethics, and in that role has understandably received lots of airtime critiquing the misconduct of the Trump administration, as well as that of GOP leadership on the Hill. And now he’s very publicly taking on Jordan for the congressman’s dubious comments on the OSU wrestling matter, and asking for accountability from Jordan.
“If Rep. Jordan is telling the truth and not lying to cover up his failure to protect students under his supervision from sexual abuses,” Eisen said on CNN.com, “he should have nothing to fear from a thorough review.”
Given the similarities between the Sacramento and Ohio State investigations, and the discrepancy in Eisen’s zeal for demanding more inquiry of Johnson and less of Jordan, I asked if partisanship had impacted his application of ethics in his dealings with Walpin. Eisen insisted, as he has from the start, that his pushing for Walpin’s firing was not politics as usual. “It had nothing to do with Kevin Johnson,” Eisen told me. “I was involved in the matter and there was no consideration of the Kevin Johnson issues.”
He declined to comment on the sexual abuse allegations contained in Walpin’s referral, and did not respond to a question about whether he has any regrets about his role in ending the IG’s investigation other than to repeatedly cite the dismissal of Walpin’s lawsuit over the firing. “I’m not opining on the Kevin Johnson [accusations],” he said. “The Walpin matter had nothing to do with Kevin Johnson. I don’t have any information about that, the merit or lack of merit of that investigation.”
Grassley, for his part, still isn’t buying Eisen’s claim that Walpin wasn’t fired to protect Johnson. “Our Congressional inquiry found that Inspector General Walpin’s diligent examination of controversies involving the former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and his charity, St. HOPE, were central to the events that led the Obama White House to fire him,” a spokesperson for Sen. Grassley told Deadspin. “As documented in our 2009 report, one of those controversies involved allegations of sexual misconduct by Johnson, which the IG properly referred to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal investigation, although that office refused to explain to Congress what it did with the referral.”
In October 2015, shortly after the Phoenix teenager came forward with her story of being abused as a teen, Johnson announced that he would not run for another term as mayor, and has been largely invisible since leaving office. Johnson has still never been criminally charged with any sexual abuse offenses.
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