Amtrak’s independent investigative officer is asking the U.S. Postal Service to look into whether Amtrak officials misused the e-mail system by searching for communiqués between his office and Congress about the unexpected retirement of Amtrak's longtime inspector general, according to House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
The Transportation Department’s inspector general also is conducting an independent probe about whether Amtrak unlawfully removed Inspector General Fred Weiderhold from his post in 2009, Issa said in a letter sent Wednesday to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Issa is butting heads with Rockefeller over Weiderhold’s retirement, which at the time raised questions about the dysfunctional relationship between Amtrak’s IG and its management, particularly Amtrak Chairman Thomas Carper and General Counsel Elanor Acheson. Issa has called for Carper and Acheson to be fired. Rockefeller believes the evidence against the two Amtrak officials doesn’t warrant such drastic action.
In the most recent exchange, Issa said new information has surfaced suggesting that Amtrak’s law department used its e-mail archive database to search for messages between the current Amtrak IG and Congress about the investigation of Weiderhold’s retirement. Amtrak IG Ted Alves has asked USPS to look into that matter, Issa’s letter said. In November, Rockefeller said Republicans weren’t thorough in their analysis.
The Senate Commerce and the House Oversight panels each have conducted their own investigations into the matter and have come up with different conclusions. House Oversight Republicans, along with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, say Amtrak forced its inspector general out of office without consulting Congress. Rockefeller believes Issa and Grassley relied too heavily on Weiderhold’s account and presented an incomplete picture of his long and difficult relationship with the Amtrak board. Rockefeller notes, for example, that a long line of Amtrak executives complained about Weiderhold’s tactics. Issa says those statements have no bearing on whether Amtrak management violated the law in removing Weiderhold.
The public exchanges between Issa and Rockefeller illustrate the typical jockeying for political capital inside the halls of Congress. Issa is notorious for poking at areas of the government where he believes officials have acted inappropriately; Amtrak is no different for him than the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Treasury Department, where he has also posed questions. For Rockefeller, the Republicans’ attack on Amtrak hits close to his turf. Amtrak falls in the jurisdiction of his committee.
Rockefeller has made a point of noting that House Democrats didn’t support the Republicans’ final conclusions on the Weiderhold matter. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee were involved in the Amtrak investigation, according to Issa, and they chose at several points to remain silent on the Republicans’ actions when they could have objected. House Oversight Democrats didn’t formally object to the Republicans’ report because the final product was billed as a GOP project, according to a Democratic staffer.
Commerce Committee spokeswoman Jena Longo said Issa’s letter fails to address the omissions in his own report. “While it’s nice that Chairman Issa is enthused about oversight, it is irresponsible to call for the removal of federal officials without presenting the full story. His allegations on Amtrak are part of a pattern of making allegations that don’t stand up to careful scrutiny,” she said.
This article appears in the January 20, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.