Undated government photo of Todd J.Zinser, inspector general of the US Department of Commerce. (Credit: Department of Commerce)
Todd J. Zinser, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Commerce. (Department of Commerce)

A Democratic lawmaker says there is evidence that a longtime employee in the Commerce Department inspector general’s office was placed on leave because she was believed to be a whistleblower.

Armed with this allegation, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, is once again calling for the dismissal of Todd Zinser, the department’s inspector general.

“I am deeply disturbed to hear of the allegations that the Commerce IG’s office has retaliated against an employee that was perceived to be a whistleblower cooperating with a congressional investigation,” she told the Loop. “I strongly believe that it is time for Mr. Zinser to go. Enough is enough. Seven weeks ago I wrote to President Obama asking him to use his authority under the IG Act to remove Todd Zinser from office. I hope the president will act soon.”

The employee, Rochelle Cobb, a human resources staffer for 14 years, said in an interview that she’d long been on Zinser’s “blacklist” but did not know why. Other employees told her during staff meetings that Zinser had it out for her, she said.

But in the interview, Cobb did not directly blame Zinser for her firing. Instead, she said it was because another manager in the office had taken a disliking to her. She was eventually put on a “performance improvement plan” before she was let go April 29.

“A lot of it is personal,” Cobb told the Loop.

Asked about the latest complaint against the office and Zinser specifically, a Commerce IG spokesman confirmed that an employee was “placed on leave based on performance issues” but said he could not “discuss individual personnel issues.”

Regarding Zinser, the spokesman said a Government Accountability Office review of the office, scheduled to be released soon, would show no evidence of “a toxic work environment or one of retaliation.”

However, the committee’s Democratic staff said the GAO did not look into specific issues regarding whistleblower retaliation in the IG’s office.

As part of the committee’s own investigation, OIG employees said higher-ups, including Zinser, targeted Cobb as someone who needed to go. Multiple employees said one senior manager continuously made claims that Cobb was sharing office grievances with congressional investigators looking into concerns about Zinser’s leadership style, according to testimony given to the Office of Special Counsel and obtained by the committee.

Zinser’s conduct has been the subject of congressional scrutiny since the Office of Special Counsel in 2013 determined that two of Zinser’s trusted allies — his counsel Wade Green and longtime friend Rick Beitel, the principal assistant inspector general for whistleblower protection — retaliated against two whistleblowers in the office. A year later, our colleague Carol Leonnig reported that “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.”

Johnson, in a lengthy House floor speech in March, outlined a series of “endemic failing in Mr. Zinser’s leadership” that included whistleblower retaliation, attempts to obstruct congressional investigations and other unethical practices.

The congresswoman said she brought Zinser up during a conversation with President Obama who told her he was aware of the situation.

Johnson hopes this latest allegation will be the final straw.