Former commerce agents plead guilty to fraud against inspector general’s office

Updated at 8:30 p.m.

Two former special agents for the inspector general’s office of the Commerce Department who accused superiors of wrongdoing pleaded guilty Tuesday to filing false expense claims and clocking hours they didn’t work, according to the Justice Department.

Rachel Ondrik, 35, of Frederick, and Kirk Yamatani, 38, of Ashburn, sought payments for more than $36,000 each in false relocation expenses, according to their plea agreements.

They also committed time and attendance fraud, the Justice Department said. As part of their pleas, Ondrik and Yamatani agreed to probation and $42,000 each in fines and restitution to the government. Sentencing is set for June 19.

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

Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser said Tuesday that the former agents waged a smear campaign against his office while they were under investigation.

“In addition to the fraud perpetrated on the U.S. taxpayers, these now former employees also retaliated by carrying out a destructive campaign of disparagement and false allegations against the Office of the Inspector General,” Zinser said in a statement.

The former agents filed complaints against his office to the Commerce secretary, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Office for Civil Rights, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The Office of Special Counsel is investigating Zinser for allegedly blackmailing four Commerce agents into signing nondisclosure agreements that kept them from talking to investigators and the public about undisclosed claims of wrongdoing by the inspector general’s office.

The Merit Systems Protection Board lifted the gag agreement in December with a stay order through Jan. 14.

The Office of Special Counsel has not sought an extension of the stay because Zinser retracted the nondisclosure agreements, according to OSC spokesman Adam Miles.

The four agents involved in that case accused Zinser of threatening to place negative performance reviews in their personnel files unless they agreed not to speak out against the inspector general’s office, according to the Office of Special Counsel.

“It was all a manipulated, false narrative,” Zinser said of the accusations.

The inspector general added that Ondrik and Yamatani “might be in the same boat, or they could be the same individuals” as the agents who took their claims to the counsel’s office.

The attorneys who represent those two agents issued a joint statement Wednesday criticizing Zinser for suggesting that their clients might be connected with the whistleblower case.

Tom Abbenante represents Ondrik; Steven Levin represents Yamatani.

“Mr. Zinser’s efforts to absolve himself of any of his own alleged wrongdoing by connecting these two matters in a press release was inappropriate, to say the least,” the attorneys said. “It is our understanding that Mr. Zin­ser’s alleged misconduct against other special agents is a separate and unrelated matter.”

The Office of Special Counsel said Wednesday that Ondrik and Yamatani were not among the four agents involved in the whistleblower case and that the agency is still investigating possible violations by Zinser.

“OSC’s stay request was based on evidence gathered from several witnesses and was not brought on behalf of the two former special agents who entered into a plea agreement yesterday,” Miles said Wednesday.

“OSC encourages all parties to respect the integrity of the investigative process and has no further comment at this time.”

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Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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