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Holding the Government Accountable

Watching the Watchdogs: GAO Finds Problems with Commerce IG

Todd Zinser, the former Inspector General (IG) of the Commerce Department, recently quit following a bipartisan congressional probe into his alleged misconduct and calls by POGO and other organizations for his resignation.

Now, a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows how the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) languished in a number of areas during Zinser’s tenure.

The GAO reported that the OIG failed to perform several functions, resulting in gaps in oversight coverage. For instance, between fiscal years 2011 and 2013, the OIG did not perform any audits of smaller Commerce offices that accounted for a total of $2.4 billion, or about a quarter, of the Department’s 2013 budget. In addition, over the same three-year period, the OIG did not perform any audits on management of federal real property or on the protection of technology critical to national security, both of which GAO had designated as high-risk areas.

The Commerce OIG not only left the Department more susceptible to waste, fraud, and abuse by ignoring these areas, but also underperformed monetarily. GAO’s report states, “While the Commerce OIG's return on each budget dollar was within the range of the lowest and highest returns for all other OIGs for fiscal years 2011 through 2013, its average return of $4.18 over the 3-year period was less than the average return of about $22.64 for the other cabinet-level OIGs.”

Perhaps the most troubling finding of GAO’s report is that the OIG has mishandled its whistleblower hotline. POGO reported in 2009 that many IG offices, “the very offices charged by Congress with receiving complaints about agency problems, all too often treat those complainants or whistleblowers as mere afterthoughts.” Although the Commerce OIG had guidelines for its whistleblower hotline that were consistent with those of other offices, these guidelines were often ignored by the hotline staff. The GAO found “numerous instances” when the OIG did not follow “policies and procedures regarding the processing, disposition, and timeliness of hotline cases.” For example, “time frames for processing complaints were not followed by [OIG] staff.” The GAO reported that the OIG had no internal controls to ensure the office’s compliance with its own hotline policies and procedures, raising concerns that these problems would have continued unfettered had it not been for GAO’s external review.

In addition to mishandling complaints from agency whistleblowers, the OIG may have mistreated whistleblowers from within its own office, the GAO reported. In a 2014 survey, a high percentage of OIG employees did not agree with the following statement: “Prohibited personnel practices are not tolerated.” This response may come as little surprise given Congress’s finding that Zinser and his deputies had a history of retaliating against whistleblowers.

Of course, any evaluation of OIG performance has to take into account the office’s staffing and budgetary resources. From fiscal year 2011 to 2013, the Commerce OIG’s full-time equivalent staff declined from 171 to 137, about 20 percent, and its budget fell from about $47 million to about $41 million, almost 13 percent. Though other IG offices faced cuts as well, theirs were less severe, the GAO reported; over the same period of time, the average cabinet-level OIG lost only 5 percent of its full-time equivalent staff and 6 percent of its budget.

There were also a few bright spots in the report. The GAO found that the OIG completed all of its mandatory audits over the three-year period. It also managed to conduct performance audits of the Department’s largest bureaus and offices, as well as audits of areas the OIG identified as “management challenges.” However, these successes do not make up for the systemic issues the office has faced.

In a statement to Government Executive, an OIG spokesperson said the office is “working to address the findings and recommendations in the [GAO] report. Going forward, OIG will work to build a solid and constructive relationship with all of our stakeholders including the department and Congress.” If the OIG wants to show that it is serious about doing its job and is on a path to improvement after the departure of its head, it should act to fix the problems identified in GAO’s report as soon as possible.