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Commerce Inspector General Broke Whistle-Blower Law, Report Finds

By John Solomon and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Commerce Department's inspector general, who is supposed to look into complaints of wrongdoing by government officials, committed "egregious violations" of the federal law that protects whistle-blowers by retaliating against two subordinates, a government investigation has concluded.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel found that Inspector General Johnnie E. Frazier wrongly demoted the two employees during an investigation of his spending, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Washington Post. It concluded that Frazier's actions violated the Whistleblower Protection Act.

The report recommended that President Bush discipline Frazier and suggested that dismissal may be appropriate.

"Because Mr. Frazier as an IG is charged with ensuring compliance with laws and regulations governing the executive branch, his flouting of such standards in taking this retaliatory action is particularly egregious, as should be his punishment," the report said.

In a phone interview last night, Frazier said that he is contesting the special counsel's findings but that he could not discuss the matter. "I have prepared a comprehensive rebuttal," he said. "There is a process that is working and I have no additional comment." He declined to release his response to the special counsel, saying: "It would be unfair to the players here who are involved."

James P. Mitchell, a spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel, declined to comment.

The whistle-blower case is one of four independent investigations of Frazier's activities. Other inquiries are underway by the Commerce Department's civil rights office, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency (PCIE), which polices the conduct of inspectors general.

The Post reported last month that Frazier's employees have alleged that he intimidated and retaliated against them for raising questions about his conduct. They allege Frazier traveled excessively at taxpayer expense and misspent money on a botched office renovation, according to documents made public by Congress.

In the whistle-blower case, the special counsel concluded that Frazier engaged in "prohibited personnel practices" when he reassigned his top deputy, Edward Blansitt, and his chief counsel, Allison Lerner, shortly after Blansitt refused to sign off on expenses that Frazier reported after an August 2006 trip to Boston and New York. Blansitt told the PCIE that he was concerned about "irregularities" on his boss's travel voucher.

Blansitt and Lerner sought whistle-blower protection from the special counsel's office, saying they were the victims of retaliation.

Frazier told investigators that he reassigned Blansitt and Lerner about a month after the travel incident because they spent too much time together and had "created the appearance of an inappropriate relationship." Neither lost pay but both were placed into lesser jobs that were "downgrades," the report said.

The special counsel's office rejected Frazier's explanation, concluding instead that he demoted Blansitt because he had questioned Frazier's travel expenses, and Lerner because Frazier believed she had supported Blansitt's decision to file a complaint. The special counsel's office said in the report's cover letter that it is awaiting a final response from Frazier before sending its findings to the White House.

A third Frazier subordinate, Deputy Assistant Inspector General Thomas Phan, has alleged in a civil rights complaint that his cooperation with the various investigations has resulted in "a continuous and escalating pattern of harassment and retaliation." This week, Phan filed an addition to his civil rights complaint, alleging that he had become the subject of a "security investigation" designed to make his co-workers "afraid of him and to marginalize him in the workplace."

Yesterday, Phan also filed a written complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, saying that he had been retaliated against because of his cooperation with the special counsel's investigation.

The growing number of allegations has roiled an office charged with safeguarding against waste, fraud and abuse in the Commerce Department.

Hoping to calm the internal office jitters, Deputy Commerce Secretary David A. Sampson held an "all hands" meeting with inspector general employees Tuesday to convey that the "department expects and encourages their continued professional and cooperation with the investigation and to report any concerns about retribution," spokesman Richard Mills said.

The talking points prepared for Sampson for the meeting laid out a not-so-subtle message:

· "The allegations against certain individuals in the context of these investigations are just that, allegations."

· "For now, I ask that you remain calm and patient."

· "If at any time you feel threatened or unsafe in the office please contact the Office of Security immediately."

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