Holding the Government Accountable

House Committee Investigating Commerce IG Todd Zinser

The Department of Commerce’s internal watchdog has failed to discipline two of his closest aides who were found to have intimidated employees that the aides perceived to be potential whistleblowers, according to a bipartisan probe by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

The Washington Postreported on the investigation on July 17 after the Committee presented its findings in a scathing letter to Commerce Inspector General (IG) Todd Zinser.

The Committee’s investigation is based largely on a 2013 report by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) finding that Zinser protected two top deputies, Wade Green and Rick Beitel, who were accused of threatening two employees with retaliation if they blew the whistle on mismanagement at the Commerce IG’s office. The Committee also raised questions about Zinser’s personal record of whistleblower retaliation, the environment of his office, and the questionable hiring of some of his senior-level officials. “[N]umerous former and current employees in Zinser’s office said he created a toxic work environment that is antithetical to the mission of a federal watchdog,” the Post reported.

This is not the first time that the House Committee has pressed its investigation into the serious allegations against Zinser. POGO reported last year on the Committee’s efforts to alert the Government Accountability Office about the issue. A few months ago, the Committee wrote a bipartisan letter to Zinser demanding an explanation for why he had still not fired Green and Beitel.

The OSC’s investigation detailed an incident that occurred in August 2011 when two senior law enforcement officers from the IG’s office were trying to leave for new jobs. IG officials stalled on issuing release dates for the two employees, and Beitel, the office’s head of whistleblower protection, filled out performance appraisals that gave them the lowest possible ratings. Green—Zinser’s chief legal counsel—then pressured both employees to sign nondisclosure agreements promising that they would not share their criticisms of the IG’s office with Congress or the news media. If they signed these agreements, the employees were told, their dismal performance appraisals would not be shared with future employers, according to the OSC.

A 2012 OSC filing to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) reveals that one employee “testified that, but for the nondisclosure agreement, he/she would file a prohibited personnel practice complaint with OSC.” According to the filing, the other employee also “would have reported misconduct by OIG senior management to the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE)” if not for the nondisclosure agreement.

“[Green and Beitel] have said that they did not mean to intimidate anyone but were working on what they considered necessary appraisals and separation agreements,” according to the Post. Nevertheless, the Committee is calling on Zinser—Commerce’s watchdog for the past seven years—to immediately remove both deputies from office.

Zinser has denied the allegations leveled against him. In an interview with the Post, he said the allegations are exaggerated claims that he believes are being perpetuated by “very bitter former employees.” The Members of the Committee, however, see Zinser’s denials as part of his effort to protect his senior-level officials. “You provided the Committee with further defamatory comments about the victims who sought relief from the OSC,” they wrote. “Their victimization, under your signature, continues as you try to save the careers of your senior managers.”

The lawmakers were equally appalled to find that Zinser failed to disclose in his 2007 Senate confirmation process an incident from 1996 in which he reportedly retaliated against John Deans, an investigator at the Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General’s office. According to the letter, Deans had uncovered potential misconduct at high levels of the DOT and planned to blow the whistle, and Zinser fired him in response. When the MSPB ordered that Zinser restore Deans to his previous post, Zinser instead placed him on six weeks administrative leave. The OSC had to petition the MSPB for a year before Zinser finally complied with the order to stop retaliating against Deans.

The lawmakers noted in the letter that this 1996 incident is very similar to Green and Beitel’s actions in 2011, writing, “in both cases, we find an effort by senior IG officials to silence investigators by attempting to derail their careers. Your conduct in 1996 appears to be the model for the conduct of your closest advisors during their retaliatory actions in 2011.” The lawmakers argued that Zinser’s credibility as an IG should be thoroughly reexamined, claiming that his act of whistleblower retaliation from 1996 “is so shocking that it raises questions about the thoroughness of the review of your record when you were confirmed to your post as IG at the Commerce Department.”

The allegations against Zinser don’t end there. The Committee is also investigating whether he hired some of his senior-level aides based on personal favors rather than professional credentials. In the letter, the lawmakers noted that Beitel is one of Zinser’s close personal friends and has worked with him since 1992, including at the DOT. According to the Committee, Zinser hired Beitel to the Commerce IG’s office in 2009, even though Beitel proved to have questionable competency during his time at the DOT. In a performance review of Beitel’s division, 56 percent of his employees said they did not trust him, and 38 percent said they were afraid of the impact he could have on their careers.

The Committee is also investigating allegations that Zinser hired an employee, Kristine Leiphart, solely because of his romantic relationship with her. Leiphart was hired on 24 hours’ notice before being terminated from another Commerce position. According to her previous manager, Zinser did not even ask about the reason for her termination before giving her a job at the IG’s office. According to the Post, Zinser contested this accusation, saying that there was nothing wrong about hiring a qualified employee who happened to be a close friend, and that the romantic aspect of their relationship had ended before she came to work in his office.

The lawmakers indicated in their letter that the investigation will continue to grow. They asked for extensive records from Zinser’s office, including hiring records, resumes, and all communications with the Council for Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency regarding allegations of misconduct by Zinser and his senior officials.