Commerce IG retires amid scrutiny from lawmakers

Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser retired from government Wednesday, amid several months of scrutiny from Congress.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) has been investigating Zinser for alleged misconduct for the past three years. Johnson most recently alleged a Commerce OIG employee was placed on administrative leave because she’s believed to be a whistleblower.

The employee, Rochelle Cobb, told the Washington Post that she’d long been on Zinser’s “blacklist,” but she wasn’t sure why.

That prompted Johnson to write to President Barack Obama, once again asking him to fire Zinser.

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She previously wrote to the President in March, outlining instances of mismanagement.

Zinser failed to investigate an allegation that employees at the National Weather Service were running an illegal accounting scam, according to Johnson. He also allegedly hired a friend into the IG office in a Senior Executive Service position, later approving bonuses to her totaling $28,000.

Johnson wasn’t the only one pushing for Zinser’s removal. The Government Accountability Project, National Whistleblowers Center and Project on Government Oversight wrote to Obama in March, calling Zinser “unfit” for the IG role.

“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 three groups wrote.

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

Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, applauded news of Zinser’s departure.

“We’re happy to hear that Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser saw the writing on the wall and has resigned,” she said. “As the Project On Government Oversight and other groups said earlier this year, the fact that Zinser personally retaliated against a whistleblower before becoming Inspector General shows that he was unfit for this important oversight position.”

Brian also commended the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology for its bipartisan investigation of Zinser.

“All cases of whistleblower retaliation are unacceptable, but it is particularly egregious when the retaliation is carried out by a watchdog tasked with investigating such reprisals,” she said.

Zinser had more than 31 years in public service and more than seven years as Commerce’s IG.

A Commerce spokesperson told Federal News Radio, Zinser led “a talented, diversified, multi-disciplined workforce responsible for improving the department’s vast array of business, scientific, economic and environmental programs and operations.”

In a letter to OIG staff, Zinser detailed the office’s accomplishments while he was at Commerce.

“We set out in 2008 to build an effective oversight organization and through your hard work and with the confidence placed in us by Congress and two Administrations, we have been able to do just that,” he wrote. “Our budgetary authority approximately doubled over the past 7 years and we have increased our staff from a beginning level of approximately 112 to our current staffing level of approximately 155 with a projected staffing level close to 190 by the end of FY15. … We noted in our FY17 budget request that over the past 5 years, despite the department not having large dollar benefit programs that would enable larger returns, OIG’s return on investment is $5.35 in financial benefits for every dollar appropriated. The financial benefits our team reported for the past 5 years total $800 million.”

Zinser’s departure comes at a time when lawmakers and oversight groups are urging the administration to fill vacant IG positiions.

Eleven agencies don’t have an inspector general. The Interior Department hasn’t had a permanent IG in six years.

“In light of testimony yesterday about the president’s failure to fill critical IG positions in several federal agencies, I call on the president to promptly nominate a permanent replacement as inspector general at the Department of Commerce and to fill the other four presidentially appointed inspector general vacancies,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in a statement.

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