Washington, D.C. – Today, Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), along with Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and Ranking Member Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.), sent a letter to the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General (IG) Todd Zinser, after receiving multiple allegations about ongoing efforts within the Office of Inspector General (OIG) to identify and potentially retaliate against whistleblowers in that office. These allegations are particularly credible given IG Zinser’s history of engaging in and tolerating whistleblower retaliation as documented in a 1996 Office of Special Counsel (OSC) report.
Last month the Committee sent another bipartisan letter to IG Zinser that informed him the Committee was aware that he had personally engaged in whistleblower retaliation in 1996. Further, the Committee discovered that Mr. Zinser failed to divulge that information to the Senate during his 2007 confirmation process. In that case, the OSC determined that the “evidence” Mr. Zinser offered against the whistleblower was “unsupportable,” and it described his actions against the whistleblower as “draconian in nature” and “motivated by animus.”
In the July 2014 letter to IG Zinser, Committee Members wrote, “There is no reasonable explanation for this lack of disclosure during your confirmation hearing and it raises serious questions as to your public candor and honesty with Congress.”
Today’s letter sent to IG Zinser reads, in part, “It is our duty as Members of Congress to help ensure that federal employees are not retaliated against in their attempts to divulge waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement or unethical behavior by agency officials. However, we are deeply concerned that there has been a practice of retaliation against your employees that has continued unabated since the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) issued its last report in September 2013 into the prohibited personnel practices of your senior staff.” In last year’s case, the OSC found that two of Mr. Zinser’s most senior and trusted aides, his legal counsel and director of whistleblower protection, had coerced OIG staff to sign “gag orders” preventing them from carrying out their legal rights to inform Congress, the OSC or the media of mismanagement or other issues of concern in the IG’s office.
The Committee’s letter asks for a broad range of records related to these new allegations of attempts to identify and target potential whistleblowers for retaliation, and it informs the IG that the Committee expects to begin interviews with OIG staff to further investigate this matter next month. The letter also requests that the IG publicly post a separate and attached letter to OIG staff that informs them of their rights to provide information regarding allegations of waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement or retaliation against them, directly to the Committee.
Whistleblower complaints to OSC by IG staff from well-managed offices are relatively unusual. During the last two years, however, six employees in the Commerce IG’s office have filed complaints of retaliation with the Office of Special Counsel. In that same period, the Department of Energy’s OIG, which is nearly twice as large as the Commerce IG’s office, has had zero complaints of retaliation filed with OSC. The Department of Health and Human Services OIG, which has a staff of more than 1,200 people--nearly seven times the size of the Commerce OIG--had a single alleged case of retaliation filed with OSC in the same time frame.
The full letter can be found here.