Holding the Government Accountable

Congress Calls for Action After Whistleblower Retaliation

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.

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.