Calls grow for the ouster of Commerce IG Todd Zinser

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

Three whistleblower groups are urging President Barack Obama to fire Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser, saying he is unfit to be the department’s top watchdog.

“IGs are supposed to root out fraud, waste, and abuseā€”a job they would not be able to do without whistleblowers. If there is anyone in government who should understand the importance of utilizing and protecting whistleblowers, it is an IG. This is why it is particularly worrisome that there have been multiple allegations and investigations of Mr. Zinser’s own retaliation against whistleblowers,” the Government Accountability Project, the National Whistleblowers Center and the Project on Government Oversight write in a letter to Obama.

They cite a 2013 Office of Special Counsel report charging Zinser with protecting two deputies who had intimidated employees who tried to reveal mismanagement within the IG’s office.

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The groups echo criticism voiced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the top Democrat on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

“I am convinced that in order to establish an effective and ethically sound office, a wholesale change in the top leadership of the Commerce Office of Inspector General is critically needed,” she wrote in a March 31 letter to Obama.

She submitted to the Congressional Record a summary of an investigation of Zinser, who has held the job since 2007. Based on evidence obtained in the committee’s investigation, Johnson accused Zinser of failing to follow up on tips about wrongdoing at the National Weather Service. She also said he hired people based on personal connections.

“When IGs themselves engage in illegal, unethical, or inappropriate behavior, Congress has an obligation to investigate them,” Johnson said in a statement.

In 2012, the chief financial officer at the National Weather Service was removed for improperly moving tens of millions of dollars, in violation of the Antideficiency Act. The head of the National Weather Service, Jack Hayes, retired following the scandal. Johnson said Zinser’s office received several tips regarding the financial mishandling at NWS, but did not act on them.

“Mr. Zinser did not notify our committee by any means that NWS had been running a huge, illegal accounting scam,” Johnson said. “That failure to notify came as a grave disappointment to me and to other members of the committee. When staff met with Mr. Zinser to understand what had happened in this case, and the role of his office in the investigation, they were astonished to learn that in November 2011 the IG had concluded that a violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act had likely occurred. That meant that the IG went six months without mentioning this significant matter to the Congress, letting us instead learn of the issue in the press.”

IGs are required to tell Congress about problems at their agencies, she noted.

Johnson said Zinser pulled strings to get his son’s friend an internship with the OIG, which later developed into a full-time position. She also said Zinser hired a woman he was romantically involved with for a top position.

In an email to the Washington Post, Zinser said last year he had requested that the Council of Inspectors General for Intergrity and Efficiency review his behavior.

“We cooperated with the review of the U.S. House Science Committee and we will cooperate with the Council of Inspectors General,” Zinser said.

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