Commerce Department’s top watchdog faces congressional probe

The top watchdog responsible for ferreting out wrongdoing at the Commerce Department is the subject of a broad congressional probe, with lawmakers from both parties alleging a pattern of behavior that “casts doubt” on his “reliability, veracity, trustworthiness, and ethical conduct.”

Lawmakers allege in a letter being released Thursday that Todd Zinser, the department’s inspector general for the past seven years, protected his top deputies when they were accused of intimidating staffers who sought to report potentially damaging information about him.

Zinser, in an interview, said he is successfully rebuilding an office that had some performance problems and is now the victim of exaggerated claims.

“There are some very bitter former employees who I believe are perpetuating these allegations and narrative,” he said. “I also believe there are political motivations on the part of some because I have been an independent and effective inspector general.”

The letter from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology calls on Zinser to immediately remove two top deputies who, investigators said, coerced whistleblowers into signing gag orders when they had complaints about Zinser.

Read the letter

Zinser

Todd Zinser (Photo: Department of Commerce)

House panel calls on Commerce IG to remove deputies

“To restore the trust of Congress and the American people, Mr. Zinser should immediately terminate these senior-level employees who failed to protect whistleblowers,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the committee’s chairman, who joined with the ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.), and other members in writing to Zinser.

In interviews with The Washington Post, numerous former and current employees in Zinser’s office said he created a toxic work environment that is antithetical to the mission of a federal watchdog.

Edward L. Blansitt III, a former deputy inspector general who left in 2010 and is now Montgomery County’s inspector general, described Zinser’s office as a “pretty dysfunctional” place.

“He’s been hostile to people for no particularly great reason,” Blansitt said.

Much of the congressional focus on Zinser began as a result of a 2012 investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency in charge of reviewing whistleblower complaints. The office concluded last year that Zinser’s two most trusted deputies — his counsel Wade Green and longtime friend Rick Beitel, the principal assistant inspector general for whistleblower protection — set out to gag two whistleblowers who were trying to leave the office for new jobs in August 2011.

The report said Zinser’s office stalled on giving the two workers an approved release date, while Beitel did hasty performance appraisals of both workers and gave them the lowest possible rating.

The report said Green encouraged both to sign agreements vowing not to discuss their complaints about the office with the news media or Congress. The two workers were told the negative appraisals would not be given to their future employers if they agreed to the non­disclosure deals.

The report concluded that Green’s motivation was to protect Zinser.

Green and Beitel declined to comment Wednesday. Both have said they did not mean to intimidate anyone but were working on what they considered necessary appraisals and separation agreements.

Zinser said he thinks his employees were unjustly accused of interfering with the whistleblowers’ legally protected speech.

In their letter, the lawmakers say they were shocked to discover that Zinser had failed in his 2007 Senate confirmation process to disclose a 1996 incident at a different agency in which he was found to have retaliated against an office investigator who was making politically embarrassing claims.

Zinser said it was an honest oversight.

“I just never thought of myself as a subject [of the investigation], although maybe I was,” he said.

The committee is also investigating whether Zinser hired certain staffers when they were under a “professional cloud” and had been cited for performance problems. The committee’s letter says that they have information that his decision to hire one female staffer was “based on your personal relationship with her and not on her professional credentials.”

Zinser said there was nothing improper about him hiring a highly qualified manager who was a close personal friend. He said the romantic nature of their relationship predated her coming to work for him.
The lawmakers’ letter indicates that their investigation will continue to grow. It asks Zinser for extensive records from his office, including copies of his personal work journals.

Carol Leonnig covers federal agencies with a focus on government accountability.
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