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Lawmakers call on Commerce IG to fire top managers for alleged whistleblower silencing

A congressional panel has called on the Commerce Department’s top watchdog to fire his top two managers in charge of whistleblower protections after investigators determined that they tried to silence two former employees.

An Office of Special Counsel probe found that the senior officials had threatened subordinates with negative performance reviews if they did not sign nondisclosure agreements before moving to new jobs.

All members of the House subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department signed a letter Tuesday calling on the agency’s inspector general, Todd Zinser, to fire the managers immediately.

They described the actions as a “thinly veiled effort to intimidate whistleblowers into not reporting misconduct.”

“I would interpret inaction by the IG on this matter to mean support for the two [officials’] actions, in which case we have a bigger problem in that office,” said Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-Ga.), who heads the subcommittee.

The Office of Special Counsel examined Zinser’s role in the alleged misconduct at Commerce and found no “documentary evidence” that he was aware of it, according to the letter.

The bipartisan letter came amid rising concerns that federal agencies are violating
whistleblower-protection laws with nondisclosure agreements.

A review released Wednesday by the office of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) found that only one executive department out of 15 — Treasury — could show that it notifies employees that their whistleblower rights remain intact despite the agreements.

Grassley said in a statement that federal workers are often “led to believe that they have signed away their rights to speak outside the chain of command.”

Zinser, who was appointed to his position by President George W. Bush, signaled reluctance Tuesday to fire the unnamed officials, saying in a statement that his office had already implemented a number of changes in response to the Office of Special Counsel’s findings.

The corrective actions included removing the managers from supervisory duties for one year, establishing consistent guidelines for employee-separation agreements and destroying all copies of the negative performance reviews.

“We worked cooperatively with OSC throughout their investigation and took their concerns seriously,” Zinser said. “We have moved on and continue to focus on providing oversight of the programs and operations of the Department of Commerce.”

The inspector general also noted that the Office of Special Counsel had closed its case because of the actions that his office had implemented.

In their letter, the lawmakers described Zinser’s response to the OSC investigation and findings as “entirely insufficient and contemptuous.”

The Office of Special Counsel said in May that four members of Zinser’s staff filed complaints about separation agreements.

Around that time, Zinser accused two of his agents in December 2012 of waging a smear campaign against his office.

The two were under investigation for filing false expense claims and clocking hours they didn’t work.

The former employees, Rachel Ondrik and Kirk Yamatani, pleaded guilty in May to charges of time and attendance fraud. They agreed to probation and $42,000 each in fines and restitution to the U.S. government.

A U.S. District Court judge allowed the two agents to withdraw their pleas upon appeal after determining that the magistrate judge who handled their cases had not followed proper procedures.

The matter is now pending with prosecutors again, according to Steven Levin, an attorney for Yamatani.

Prior to their plea agreements, the two agents filed a complaint with then-acting commerce secretary Rebecca Blank saying that Zinser had used “meritless” inquiries to force employees out of his agency.

The Office of Special Counsel said Yamatani and Ondrik were not among the employees who filed whistleblower complaints.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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