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Senate Chairmen Intensify Scrutiny of Commerce Inspector General

Three Senate committee chairmen have demanded that the Commerce Department’s inspector general make 10 of her staffers available for interviews, citing “dozens” of whistleblower complaints about the inspector general office.
(Photo of Peggy Gustafson: C-SPAN; illustration: CJ Ostrosky / POGO)

(WASHINGTON)—Three Senate committee chairmen have demanded that the Commerce Department’s inspector general make 10 of her staffers available for interviews, citing “dozens” of whistleblower complaints about the inspector general office, according to two letters obtained exclusively by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). The interviews, which include Inspector General Peggy Gustafson’s chief of staff and general counsel, began last week and are continuing.

In response to the congressional scrutiny, Gustafson issued a statement to POGO accusing the senators of carrying out a “targeted campaign” against her, “motivated by political concerns.” She singled out Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), saying he “ignored her request to meet with her personally.

The letters were signed by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee; Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; and Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In a statement, Grassley acknowledged that the request for staff interviews is “out of the ordinary,” but argued that the “dysfunction” in Gustafson’s office warranted the scrutiny.

More than two dozen whistleblowers who came forward to Congress alleged varying degrees of mismanagement, misconduct, low productivity, and inadequate oversight in the run-up to the 2020 census, according to Grassley. Whistleblowers told POGO and Congress that Gustafson has been frequently absent from her office and slow to make decisions. The whistleblowers also alleged that she sought to minimize her office’s low score on a key survey on federal employees’ morale and their perception of their agency leaders’ performance.

Gustafson insisted in her statement to POGO that her office has made progress this fiscal year by hiring new employees and boosting productivity. She also defended her staff’s work conducting oversight of the 2020 census, noting that her office has produced 55 findings so far, and coordinated extensively with census officials, the FBI and others regarding the count, which is conducted every 10 years.

The allegations against Gustafson come as the inspector general investigates several politically sensitive matters, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s alleged false statements related to the census citizenship question; the “Sharpiegate” scandal, in which Commerce officials were asked to defend President Donald Trump’s bogus claims about Hurricane Dorian; and Ross’s alleged financial conflicts of interest. Those reports are pending, and their release dates are unknown.

Media Contacts:Caitlin MacNeal, Media Relations Manager at the Project On Government Oversight, [email protected] or (202) 347-1122

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Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption, abuse of power, and when the government fails to serve the public or silences those who report wrongdoing.

We champion reforms to achieve a more effective, ethical, and accountable federal government that safeguards constitutional principles.