Where are the progressives?

A longer version of this article appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. 

Pablo Eisenberg
Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg

Progressives and liberals have always had a hard time holding their political leaders accountable when they reach the White House.

The agency that oversees national service seems to be a case in point, as progressives exacerbate the problems by staying silent about them.

Poor judgment, incompetence, partisan action and political ineptitude seem to be the order of the day at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps and other programs scheduled to get a big infusion of money under a law enacted in April.

The organization lacks a leader after the administration’s nominee for director, Maria Eitel, withdrew from consideration because, she said, she had health problems.

Two months later, there is no sign that a replacement is in the immediate offing.

Another top post will soon be vacant because Alan Solomont, chair of the corporation board, has been nominated to serve as American ambassador to Spain.

The board itself is still waiting for full representation: Six members have yet to be appointed by the White House.

Adding to the leadership void was President Obama’s decision in June to fire the organization’s inspector general, Gerald Walpin.

Obama said Walpin was incompetent and had behaved bizarrely.

But Obama did not follow the procedures spelled out in the Inspector General Reform Act, which he had supported as a co-sponsor.

Under the measure, enacted last year, the president must give Congress 30 days’ advance notice of the dismissal of any inspector general, along with the reasons for termination.

While Walpin has been described as a difficult, prickly and undiplomatic official, he did not deserve the treatment he received.

His firing seems to have been triggered by two investigations.

One was his finding that one of the largest AmeriCorps program, the Teaching Fellows program at the City University of New York, was ineligible for AmeriCorps money.

The other was his inquiry into spending by St. Hope Academy, in Sacramento. The organization was a recipient of AmeriCorps money and run by Kevin Johnson, the former basketball star for the Phoenix Suns, before he was elected mayor of Sacramento.

The inspector general’s office found that almost all of the money granted to St. Hope, some $850,000, had been either misspent or undocumented.

Walpin sent his findings to the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento and recommended it pursue a criminal prosecution and full restitution of the grant money.

He also asked the corporation to suspend Kevin Johnson from receiving further federal money, and it did so.

Neither the corporation’s board or staff members nor White House executives seemed willing to recognize that the terms of the AmeriCorps grant to St. Hope had been violated; that Johnson, an ally of Obama, was responsible for the organization’s problems; and that a settlement the U.S. attorney negotiated with St. Hope and Johnson did little to punish them.

Politics apparently trumped preserving the integrity of a federal grant program.

As might have been expected, the firing of Walpin provided a field day for right-wing newspapers, bloggers, and editorial writers.

But where were the mainstream newspapers and progressive commentators?

Few, if any, progressive observers raised questions about the matter, nor have leaders in the national and public-service movement.

That is not the only issue they have kept quiet about.

Many people from progressive nonprofits, public-service groups and labor unions to whom I spoke expressed concern about the appointment of Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation, to the head of the corporation.

Many of them said they felt she was not qualified for the role because she had limited experience overseeing big organizations and was tied to a corporation accused of workers’-rights violations.

Yet none were willing to speak out publicly about the nomination.

Except for a few Democratic senators, few progressives were willing to criticize the manner in which the inspector general was fired or the substance of the St. Hope investigation.

And nobody seems to have the temerity to question the current leadership of the corporation and its board of directors, or those in the White House who are supposed to be providing direction and oversight to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Where are the watchdog groups when both the corporation and the public-service movement need them?

The corporation’s budget, $1.2 billion, is scheduled to increase to almost $6 billion in five years, and the agency could eventually oversee approximately 250,000 members of AmeriCorps.

The corporation will need visionary and courageous leadership from both its board and staff.

The sooner they are appointed the better.

Neither the corporation nor the White House can afford to make serious political mistakes as they seek to make community service a major priority in the Obama administration. Nor can they seek to protect or serve only political allies.

Progressive nonprofit groups must provide tough counsel and oversight to make sure the White House follows an appropriate course. Keeping quiet or staying on the sidelines is not a constructive option.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

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