Lawmakers Warn Watchdog

By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2007

Republicans and Democrats often bicker about the focus of congressional oversight. But the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigation of the Commerce Department's internal watchdog has elicited some rare bipartisan unity.

That unanimity was on display again last Thursday when the committee sent a stern letter to Commerce Inspector General Johnnie E. Frazier and his deputies. It warned that lawmakers will not tolerate the "harassment and mistreatment" of subordinates in the office who are cooperating with the investigation.

The letter was signed by the panel's Democratic chairman, John Dingell of Michigan, and his Republican counterpart, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, as well as Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), the two lawmakers who oversee the committee's investigative arm.

The lawmakers, as well as two federal agencies, are investigating allegations that Frazier -- whose job it is to root out waste, fraud and abuse at the Commerce Department -- has himself misspent money, abused government travel and retaliated against employees who raised concerns.

Frazier's office said it is cooperating but disputes any allegations of witness retaliation. "We categorically deny the charges raised in that letter," IG Acting Counsel Carolyn Croak said.

The new letter told Frazier that the lawmakers have received "credible allegations" that employees of the inspector general helping the committee have been threatened and retaliated against. The letter's don't-mess-with-witnesses message minced no words: "It is a violation of federal law to interfere with a congressional inquiry."

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EXCERPT

During the course of our investigation, several credible allegations have been received that one or more senior officials within the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Commerce may have: (1) threatened an employee within the OIG for communicating to or participating with the Committee and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) during the course of their respective investigations related to your office; and (2) retaliated against an employee with administrative action because the employee communicated to or participated with the Committee and the OSC during an investigation. Furthermore, the Committee has been told that a complainant has been threatened with imminent suspension or termination in response to his or her cooperation with Committee and OSC investigations. In order to protect the complainants from additional harassment and mistreatment, we are not disclosing their identities at this time. . . .

In addition, consistent with the Committee's April 13, 2007, letter to you requesting that the Department preserve records related to our investigation of the OIG, and our April 27, 2007, document request letter to you, the Committee expects to receive any and all records that are relevant to this investigation. Accordingly, we remind you that it is also against the law to deny or interfere with employees' rights to furnish information to Congress. . . .

Finally, while it is not a matter of Committee policy or practice to promote the private rights of Federal employees, we would remind you and other managers within your office that . . . it is a violation of Federal law to retaliate against whistleblowers. . . .

To demonstrate your good faith compliance with the aforementioned laws and cooperation with these investigations, we ask that you provide unedited and unredacted copies of this letter, as well as our April 27, 2007, document request letter, to all managers in your office . . .


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