Science Committee Democrats Ask for Top-to-Bottom Review of Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General
(Washington, DC) – Four senior Members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday requesting a comprehensive review of the Department of Commerce’s (DOC) Office of Inspector General (OIG). Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Maffei (D-NY), Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member Frederica Wilson (D-FL), and Environment Subcommittee Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) all signed the GAO request in the wake of multiple allegations of wrong-doing coming to the Committee staff.
The Ranking Members asked the GAO to review three broad areas in the Commerce IG’s office. First, they asked that GAO examine how the office handles, and sometimes mishandles, “Hotline” complaints. Second, they asked that GAO examine the IG hiring practices and reports of retaliatory actions taken against IG staff. The Members also requested that GAO do a broad review of how well the Commerce IG’s office performs its job, conducts audits and investigations, and identifies waste, fraud and abuse.
Last September Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser testified before the Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight regarding how his office handled multiple complaints to the Commerce IG’s Hotline regarding unauthorized reprogramming issues at the National Weather Service (NWS). Mr. Zinser’s testimony and follow-up responses to Questions For the Record (QFRs) have been both inconsistent and incomplete. Members are still seeking complete responses to those questions.
In December, The Washington Post reported that the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), in charge of federal whistleblower protection issues, was engaged in an ongoing investigation concerning Mr. Zinser and some of his most senior staff for forcing at least four OIG employees to sign “gag orders” barring them from disclosing information about the mismanagement of the Commerce OIG to either the OSC or Congress. This gag order appears to be a clear violation of several federal whistleblower protection statutes. Mr. Zinser and his deputies reportedly threatened to share fabricated poor performance appraisals with the employees’ new employers if they violated these non-disclosure agreements. The OSC concluded in one document that these actions were particularly outrageous for an Inspector General who is sworn to protect federal employees from retaliatory actions by agency management.
Inspector Generals are the watch-dogs of federal agencies, tasked with rooting out waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement. However, significant allegations of gross misconduct, from multiple credible sources have surfaced that paint a picture of mismanagement by the DOC Inspector General, Mr. Todd Zinser, and his closest aides. This alleged misconduct includes questionable hiring practices for senior IG personnel, personnel abuses and retaliatory actions against Commerce IG staff, and a pattern of conduct by senior leadership that has contributed to a steady decline in the efficiency and effectiveness of the office.
An Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey conducted last year of Commerce OIG employees (110 participants) painted a disturbing picture of the office. Finishing 291st out of 292 offices in the Federal “best places to work” survey, over 50% of the Commerce IG’s staff indicated that they were going to try to find jobs somewhere else in the next year, and almost half (44.6%) were unsure or fearful of reporting “a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” When asked about satisfaction with the “policies and practices of your senior leaders” 46.6% indicated they were dissatisfied. In addition, over the past two years the survey showed a dramatic decline in the percentage of OIG staff responding positively to the question, “My organization’s leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.” In 2010, 71.1% of employees responded positively to that statement and by 2012 the number of staff responding positively to that statement had declined by almost 25-percent to just 46.1%.
Upon release of the letter, Ms. Johnson commented, “Any one of the issues outlined above, from the ‘gag orders’ silencing OIG employees’ from freely expressing their views to Congress, to the incomplete and inconsistent answers provided to the Committee by the IG regarding mishandling complaints of financial shenanigans at the National Weather Service would be enough to justify concerns about the office. The survey responses indicate that a major crisis exists in the leadership and management of the Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General. The GAO is well positioned to conduct a thorough top-to-bottom assessment of this office and make appropriate recommendations regarding steps to improve the management and operations of the Commerce OIG. I hope that GAO prioritizes this work to protect taxpayer money and informs the Committee of problems as they move ahead.”
The Commerce OIG is tasked with helping to oversee the department’s annual budget of approximately $8 billion and its management of nearly 47,000 employees. The IG has a staff of approximately 130 employees and a budget of $27 million.