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Commerce Inspector General Faces Allegations of Misconduct

The Ranking Members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and three subcommittees sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on February 26 requesting an investigation into troubling reports of misconduct at the Department of Commerce (Commerce) Office of Inspector General (OIG), suggesting that it’s not only Acting Inspectors General that can fail spectacularly in their oversight missions.

Just two days after the Ranking Members sent their letter, the Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight attempted to get to the bottom of some of the allegations plaguing the Commerce OIG at a hearing called “Top Challenges For Science Agencies: Reports from the Inspectors General—Part 1.” However, Commerce Inspector General (IG) Todd Zinser did not attend, instead sending Deputy Inspector General Dave Smith to defend the OIG to questioning Members. Smith had held this position for a scant three months.

Thus there are still several outstanding questions regarding the OIG’s conduct throughout the past year. In September 2012, the Committee held a hearing on unlawful reprogramming of millions of dollars within the Department of Commerce in 2010 and 2011 and the agency’s failure to inform Congress of this action. At that time, according to the letter’s authors, it became clear to them that not only had the IG office received many credible allegations of this misconduct but that the office had failed to pursue a single one. Furthermore, according to the Ranking Members, after a preliminary review that exposed a violation of the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits such reprogramming of funds, the OIG handed the investigation back to the Department, letting it continue the investigation itself. As the Ranking Members wrote in their letter, “Both steps are inexplicable and inconsistent with our expectations for an Inspector General.”

But this was just the tip of the misconduct iceberg. In December 2012, a Washington Post article revealed that the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent agency working to protect whistleblowers, was investigating mismanagement allegations within the OIG. According to the Post, IG Zinser, then-Deputy IG Wade Green, and Principal Assistant IG for Investigations Rick Beitel forced at least four senior OIG law enforcement officers to sign non-disclosure agreements saying they would not provide any information about the Commerce OIG to Congress or the OSC. The officers were threatened with fabricated negative performance appraisals that would be shared with any potential new employers if they did not agree to sign.

A November 26 “Initial Request for Stay of Personnel Action and Protective Order” filing by the OSC with the Merit Systems Protection Board reads: “The ultimate irony is that these gag agreements were coerced by an Inspector General—the very person sworn to protect a federal agency’s employees from prohibited personnel practices and to uphold the merits system principals.”

The final straw for the Ranking Members came from the 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Results, which found that Commerce’s OIG was one of the very worst places to work in the government. According to the Ranking Members’ letter: “The office came in dead last for employee skills/mission match; 285th for Effective Leadership-Empowerment; 280th for Teamwork; 275th for Effective Leadership-Senior Leaders and 275th for Performance Based Rewards and Advancement.” Further percentages and statistics highlighted by the Ranking Members paint the picture of an office with a serious honesty and integrity problem.

These troubling allegations against Inspector General Zinser and his staff serve to demonstrate that even permanent Inspectors General can’t always get it right. POGO will be watching this office and any potential GAO assessment on the matter to ensure that this watchdog is doggedly pursing allegations of misconduct. Holding an Inspector General position means dealing with pressure from the public, Congress, and particularly the agency. But if you can’t take the heat, get out of the OIG.