July 17, 2014

Commerce Department’s Inspector General Under Fire for Treatment of Whistleblowers

By Jason Enzler

Congress is opening an investigation of the Commerce Department’s Office of the Inspector General amid allegations that the agency’s watchdog mistreated whistleblowers.  The probe is aimed at the very top, with allegations of misconduct focused on the inspector general, himself, Todd Zinser.  And all signs point to the investigation going far beyond the OIG’s treatment of whistleblowers to deal with other possible issues of misconduct, such as Mr. Zinser’s hiring practices.

According to a letter obtained by the Washington Post, a bipartisan group of representatives claims that Mr. Zinser improperly protected and defended his closest deputies after they were found to have attempted to gag two whistleblowers who had complaints about the OIG.  Perhaps even worse, Mr. Zinser has also been found to have retaliated against a whistleblower, but he failed to disclose that information during his confirmation hearing for the OIG post.  As the letter pointedly states: “[Mr. Zinser’s] conduct in 1996 appears to be the model for the conduct of [his] closest advisors during their retaliatory actions in 2011,” and Mr. Zinser’s record “casts doubt on [his] reliability, veracity, trustworthiness, and ethical conduct.”

But the allegations do not stop there.  In addition to questioning Mr. Zinser’s record with whistleblowers, the letter goes on to question other aspects of how he runs the OIG.  For example, the representatives note that one of the deputies that Mr. Zinser protected was his close friend, and that Mr. Zinser had hired him despite the fact that he had a reputation for managing employees through “fear and intimidation.”  The letter also questions other employees he hired under a “professional cloud,” such as a woman apparently hired based on her personal relationship with Mr. Zinser and with no regard to her qualifications.

While there is no knowing how or when this investigation will conclude, two outcomes seem likely.  First, this probe will be an extensive review of Mr. Zinser and the OIG.  The representatives are demanding documents spanning almost 20 years, and they are broadly outlined to seek information far beyond Mr. Zinser’s attitudes towards whistleblowers.  And second, some type of change is almost certain to result from the probe.  As the representatives state in the letter, they are undertaking the investigation to determine “whether legislative action” will be required.

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