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Congress Calls for Action After Whistleblower Retaliation

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Todd Zinser, the Department of Commerce Inspector General, is under fire by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Oversight. On Tuesday, the subcommittee sent a bipartisan letter to the IG giving him just two weeks to explain why he has not yet removed two senior managers who were found to have retaliated against whistleblowers in the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

In late 2012, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent agency working to protect whistleblowers, began investigating accusations of mismanagement within the Commerce OIG.  The focus was on allegations that IG Zinser and two of his top managers, Chief Counsel to the IG Wade Green and Principal Assistant Inspector General for Investigations and Whistleblower Protection Rick Beitel, forced four senior Commerce IG law enforcement officers to sign non-disclosure agreements saying they would not provide any information about the office to Congress or the OSC. The employees were reportedly threated with fabricated negative performance appraisals.

Todd Zinser

Todd Zinser, the Commerce Department's Inspector General

According to the Subcommittee on Oversight’s letter, the OSC investigation found that Green and Beitel did in fact threaten IG employees with failing performance appraisals unless they signed an agreement that included a “non-disparagement provision.” The Members stated that these actions were “inexcusable” and show that the senior officials in IG Zinser’s office have a “complete disregard for basic whistleblower protection laws.”

Although the OSC’s original investigation included IG Zinser, the investigators were not able to find any “documentary evidence” that he was aware of or involved in the actions of his most senior staff. Yet, as the Subcommittee members suggest, Zinser’s failure to immediately terminate those responsible demonstrates a clear lack of support for whistleblowers.

The Subcommittee members stated in their letter to IG Zinser:

That whistleblowers in your own office have been treated in the manner documented by OSC strongly suggests you have not created a culture of respect, trust and safety that would empower whistleblowers to come forward. And your failure to take significant steps to remove personnel who have engaged in such egregious conduct signals your complicity with the actions of your senior-most staff.

For years the Project On Government Oversight has advocated for strong, independent, and permanent Inspectors General (see, for instance, our Where Are All The Watchdogs? webpage). But the results of OSC’s investigation reveal that even IGs who have been thoroughly vetted by the President and Senate don’t always get it right. The Representatives have given IG Zinser two weeks to get his house in order, and POGO is heartened to see the Subcommittee taking whistleblower protections so seriously.

Image from the Department of Commerce.

By: Lydia Dennett
Investigator, POGO

lydia dennett Lydia Dennett is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Lydia handles whistleblower intake and works on nuclear safety and security at the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Topics: Whistleblower Protections

Related Content: Congressional Oversight, Watching the Watchdogs, Inspector General Oversight

Authors: Lydia Dennett

Submitted by at: April 6, 2014
How can the Administration justify this policy? It makes no sense and is such a contradiction of what Democrats stand for. It create mistrust of the government and of important laws to protect the individual and free speech, which aren't enforced. Furthermore, the lack of enforcement leaves the brave individual open punishment and loss for his or her actions. Please stop this negative and hurtful policy now!
Submitted by Citizen at: April 6, 2014
Failing to discipline violations suggests a tacit approval that is unacceptable in an agency that purports to serve the public.
Submitted by Anonymous at: April 5, 2014
who are these people?
Submitted by Serena at: April 5, 2014
One problem here is that contractors are not protected. In one agency, I saw workers harmed and had retaliation directed at me for being one of those harmed. Another contractor who merely asked the Director a question via an email set up for that exact purpose was threatened with termination and told he could not speak of it. I was told I was in the wrong and should 'let it go'. Other workers were told not to talk to him, and I was threatened with that same retaliation, too. (I gave them the choice of long term medical leave or a lawsuit, and was given the leave on the spot.) If the IG services are not available to contractors (or there simply IS no IG at all), and equal protections are not offered, then what on earth else should we expect? I've SEEN why Snowden made the choice he did - and that didn't even involve people being physically harmed by an agency's direct negligence! Glad the Subcomitte is being pro-active in this case. But we need even more if whistleblower protections are ever to mean anything!
Submitted by why are you tolerating these staff members who fail in their duties? w at: April 5, 2014
what does it say about you and your administration that you do not act to support and help whistleblowers, who could be seen as supporting the system?seeces0 ...................
Submitted by Bruce Schundler at: April 4, 2014
In virtually every agency of the government, they are doing a good job of complying with the section of the Whistleblower Protection Act that mandates effective "education and training" about the WPA, but they are doing nothing to enforce it, they don't discipline violators of the law, and if anything, they participate in the retaliation that inevitably occurs against any one who reports "waste, fraud, and abuse" as they are supposed to do. On my family's website, I've described what happened to my wife and Park Rangers for the National Park Service ( If our "reward" for writing the Inspector General's office about abuses and waste in one small park of the National Park Service resulted in not being re-hired as we were supposed to be and not getting any support from anyone in the government until the Office of Special Council had to prosecute our case, imagine what happens in other agencies, and in cases where much more significant problems are being exposed! In the final analysis, the Whistleblower Protection Act simply is not being enforced and violators are not being disciplined And meanwhile, most federal employees know they will suffer retaliation for reporting even minor instances of "waste, fraud, and abuse"---almost as if the WPA and the newer WPEA had never been passed by Congress and were not among the laws by which we are supposed to be guided.
Submitted by Evy Brown at: April 2, 2014
Hmmm...have any officials been disciplined that were found to be violating anti-discrimination and whistleblower retaliation laws?

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