Lawmakers rap Amtrak for IG dismissal

Report by House and Senate Republicans finds agency broke the law by failing to first notify Congress.

Amtrak's board of directors violated a federal law by removing its long-time inspector general last year without first notifying Congress, according to a report released on Monday by congressional Republicans.

The report by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., also raises serious questions about the motive of Amtrak executives for ousting Fred Weiderhold, who had worked for the rail agency for 35 years, including 21 as its first inspector general.

Republican staff found Weiderhold's relationship with Amtrak leadership had deteriorated in recent years, in part because of an IG investigation into excess payments by the agency's law department for outside legal services. A joint review with the Transportation Department's inspector general and Amtrak's IG questioned more than $100 million that Amtrak paid in outside legal fees from 2002 through 2005.

Weiderhold also reviewed the law department's role in a $100 million agreement in which Amtrak sold and then leased back its rail cars.

"Amtrak interfered with and ultimately decided to get rid of its inspector general for the worst possible reason: to stop an investigation," Issa said. "Inspectors general can't be effective if they believe looking for waste and abuse could cost them their job. It's clear Amtrak has problems that could ultimately require action by Congress."

On Monday, Issa suggested he is considering legislation that would give subpoena power to all IGs -- a power only the Defense Department watchdog now possesses.

The report alleges Amtrak's senior attorneys viewed Weiderhold as a threat and responded through a "systematic campaign" to control the inspector general. Weiderhold was required to sign an "unusual protocol" that set strict guidelines for how the IG could access Amtrak documents and information, the report said.

Weiderhold initially refused to agree to the protocol, but Amtrak's then-chairman, David Laney, eventually ordered him to sign the documents in October 2007, according to Grassley and Issa. The law department then began obstructing and delaying the IG's access to documents he had subpoenaed, the report claims.

In April 2009, the Integrity Committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency received an anonymous complaint that Weiderhold had failed to report vacation time in 2007 and 2008 and to submit approved travel expense requests. The committee conducted an investigation and eventually dismissed the complaint.

But, on June 18, 2009, during a meeting with Amtrak leadership, officials told Weiderhold he had 24 hours to voluntarily retire or be publicly removed for "cause," according to the Republicans' report.

Weiderhold signed the separation agreement and Amtrak paid him a severance package of $244,000 and a lump-sum payment of more than $38,000. In exchange, Weiderhold was told he could not discuss his resignation with anyone -- including Congress -- without first clearing the statements with Amtrak management, the report said. When Congress began investigating the matter, Amtrak amended the agreement.

Amtrak's board of directors later appointed Lorraine Green, the agency's former vice president for human resources, as interim IG.

The agency's public statements on the matter made no mention of Weiderhold being forced out.

"As Amtrak's first and only inspector general, Fred has made important contributions in helping the board of directors understand key issues facing the railroad and made useful recommendations to improve how we do business," Amtrak Chairman Thomas Carper said at the time. "We thank him for his dedicated service to Amtrak and wish him well in his retirement."

The report, however, noted, "Amtrak constructively removed Weiderhold. It was not a truly voluntary resignation as Amtrak management had suggested."

The agency was required to notify Congress a month in advance before removing the inspector general and to provide a detailed explanation for the dismissal. The report found that Amtrak failed to follow the guidelines, which were created to protect the independence of inspectors general.

"Amtrak failed to comply with the Inspector General Act for way too long," Grassley said. "Forcing its inspector general out of office without notice or consultation with Congress is only the latest example. Naming an interim inspector general from Amtrak management with no relevant experience only added insult to injury."

In a statement, Amtrak stood behind its treatment of Weiderhold, noting, as it had previously, it was "concerned for some time about whether best practices were in use," by the IG.

"A full and fair reading of all the information provided by the Amtrak board and management to the minority investigators confirms important facts and circumstances regarding the retirement of its former IG and demonstrates Amtrak acted appropriately," the statement said.

The controversy is the second for the Obama administration involving an inspector general. The White House has been criticized for its removal last year of Gerald Walpin as inspector general at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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