Watchdog wins reprieve for Commerce Department agents under gag agreement

Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser.
(Courtesy of Commerce Department Inspector General’s Office)

A board that conducts hearings over questionable personnel practices issued a stay order against the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General Thursday, temporarily lifting gag agreements aimed at preventing four senior law enforcement officers from speaking out against the agency. 

The Office of Special Counsel, which requested the order from the Merit Systems Protection Board, claims three top inspector general’s officials coerced four of their agents to sign nondisclosure agreements to keep them from volunteering information about the agency to the OSC or Congress, thereby violating whistleblower laws. 

The board said in its stay order that it found “reasonable grounds to believe that the agency took or threatened to take [personnel actions] against the former employees in violation” of the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Lloyd-LaFollette Act, a 1912 law that codified whistleblowing rights for federal employees. 

OSC alleges that Inspector General Todd Zinser, Deputy Inspector General Wade Green and Principal Assistant Inspector General for Investigations Rick Beitel issued failing performance reviews to each of the agents before asking them to sign the settlements, promising not to place the negative appraisals in the agents’ personnel folders and saying they would provide prospective employers with neutral references if the officers signed the agreements.

Those actions, if they occurred, would contradict a major part of the inspector general’s mission, which is to work with potential whistleblowers instead of silencing them. 

Reports of wrongdoing by the inspector general’s office preceded the case involving the stay order, according to OSC spokeswoman Ann O’Hanlon, who said she could not elaborate on those cases. 

Zinser said in an interview that OSC is investigating his office for alleged personnel practices relating to two Commerce Department employees not connected to the stay order. He said he does not know the identities of any of the workers involved in allegations against his department or the details of their claims. The OSC has not released that information to the public. 

OSC claims the coercive actions by the inspector general’s office occurred in 2010 and 2011. According to Zinser, only five people signed separation agreements with his department during that time period. 

The order from the Merit Systems Protection Board, which lasts until Jan. 14, allows the agents involved in the stay order to volunteer information to OSC, as well as other investigative bodies and the media, without immediate repercussions from the inspector general’s office.  

“OSC is committed to ensuring that agencies do not interfere with whistleblowing to Congress,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. “We are pleased that the [Merit Systems Protection Board] has granted the stay so that OSC can further investigate this matter.” 

The inspector general’s office released a statement Friday saying three of the agents involved in the case signed their separation agreements with representation from attorney’s “considered among the best in federal labor law,” while the fourth had at least consulted a lawyer before signing the contract. 

“We strongly support employees’ rights to register complaints and have not interfered with those rights,” the inspector general’s office said in its statement. “As we all know, there are two sides to every story and hopefully at some point in this process we will have the opportunity to provide the facts for the public record.”

Zinser said of the investigation: “It’s really a situation where we’re going to cooperate with OSC and be as transparent as we can about it.”

For more Federal Eye, visit PostPolitics and The Fed Page.

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Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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