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Watchdog: Accountability

House panel calls on Commerce inspector general to fire officials who forced 'gag clause' on whistleblowers

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Federal inspectors general are supposed to protect whistleblowers, but a House panel has accused Department of Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser of doing the opposite.

In a letter from a House Committee on Science, Space and Technology's Subcommittee on Oversight, Zinser was called on the carpet for not firing two senior managers who, according to the Office of Special Counsel, forced four whistleblowers to sign a "gag clause" prohibiting them from exposing misconduct in the inspector general's office.

The OSC was established by Congress to investigate claims of whistleblower retaliation in the federal civil service.

"It is your office that is supposed to be a safe-harbor for whistleblowers throughout the Department," the subcommittee wrote in the April 1 letter.

"That whistleblowers in your own office have been treated in the manner documented by OSC strongly suggests you have not created a culture of respect, trust and safety that would empower whistleblowers to come forward," the letter said.

"And your failure to take significant steps to remove personnel who have engaged in such egregious conduct signals your complicity with the actions of your senior-most staff," the letter said.

Wade Green, then deputy inspector general at the Commerce Office of Inspector General, and Rick Beitel, principal assistant inspector general for investigations and whistleblower protection, threatened the four employees with critical performance reviews if they disclosed any negative information about Zinser's operation, the OSC found.

Zinser has until April 15 to explain his actions to the subcommittee and describe any "personnel changes" he has made because of the OSC probe.

"It is bad enough that the OSC report determined that the individual in charge of whistleblower protection violated that trust, but to face no disciplinary action in the aftermath of that revelation baffles the mind," said Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., the subcommittee's chairman.

"As the IG at the Department of Commerce, the buck stops with Mr. Zinser, and as such, I call on him to faithfully execute the duties of the office by providing justice for the whistleblowers who had the courage and fortitude to step forward with their claim. I would interpret inaction by the IG on this matter to mean support for the two individuals' actions, in which case we have a bigger problem in that office," he said.

“The results of OSC’s investigation reveal that even IGs who have been thoroughly vetted by the President and Senate don’t always get it right,” said Lydia Dennett of the Project on Government Oversight. 

“The Representatives have given IG Zinser two weeks to get his house in order, and POGO is heartened to see the Subcommittee taking whistleblower protections so seriously,” she said. 

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