What happens when the top officials responsible for exposing wrongdoing within the federal government are the very ones involved in it?
That’s what lawmakers are trying to sort out right now.
The Commerce Department’s Inspector General Todd Zinser is at the center of a congressional investigation for allegedly protecting his top deputies who intimidated whistleblowers and hired employees based on personal and romantic relationships.
Lawmakers began zeroing in on Zinser after an initial probe by the Office of Special Counsel--the agency charged with reviewing whistleblower complaints--concluded that Zinser’s top deputies, his counsel Wade Green and Rick Beitel, the principal assistant inspector general for whistleblower protection, attempted to gag two whistleblowers who had complained about Zinser’s office behavior.
The OSC’s report said that the deputies coerced the whistleblowers to sign agreements vowing not to discuss their complaints about the office with the news media or Congress. Since then, former employees of Zinser have come forward, saying that the IG created a “toxic work environment,” The Washington Post reported.
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of legislators led by Rep. Lamar Smith, the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, sent a scathing letter to Zinser calling on him to immediately remove his top deputies allegedly involved in the gag orders.
“Incredibly, these advisers were your chief legal counsel and head of whistleblower protection. Based on the conduct your senior managers engaged in, and unambiguously documented by the OSC investigative report, your own internal disciplinary policies approved and endorsed by you call for their suspension and possible removal from office. You have done neither,” the letter said.
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The lawmakers added that the IG’s actions “led us to wonder about your history of conduct toward whistleblowers,” which prompted them to dive into Zinser’s background. They went on to say they were surprised to find out that Zinser himself had been accused of whistleblower retaliation at his former position as the deputy assistant IG at the Department of Transportation—a detail he failed to mention at his Senate confirmation hearing in 2007.
According to The Post, Zinser said it was an oversight. “I just never thought of myself as a subject [of the investigation], although maybe I was,” he said.
The lawmakers said they are also looking into whether Zinser hired certain staffers with whom he had personal relationships. In one case in particular, he allegedly hired a female worker with whom he was romantically involved. Zinser claims the relationship occurred prior to her employment.
Still, the lawmakers said they will continue their probe and asked the IG for additional work documents and journals.
“The Committee has uncovered evidence questioning whether the Commerce IG’s office is functioning with integrity. We must determine if these allegations are true and if so, they are the result of systemic issues that may require legislative action,” the letter said.
This isn’t the first time a federal auditor has been accused of wrongdoing.
Earlier this year, a Senate oversight panel released a report accusing the Department of Homeland Security’s top auditor, Charles Edwards, of intentionally altering and delaying investigations. Edwards, who served as the DHS’s acting IG, allegedly went to dinner and drinks with department officials and updated them on inside information about the IG’s findings.
Edwards left his post last year to join another agency within DHS, however, after the report was published. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson put him on paid administrative leave.
Meanwhile, the Council of Inspectors General is conducting its own investigation into Edwards' case.
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