Lawmakers will ask President Obama to fire the Commerce Department’s inspector general in the face of allegations against him over misconduct, retaliation against whistleblowers – and now, hiring a close friend for a cushy job with a six-figure salary.
Todd J. Zinser, the Commerce IG since 2007, is in charge of weeding out the very type of misconduct he’s accused of committing. Last week, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking Democrat on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said President Obama should remove Zinser because of unacceptable behavior over a period of time.
“There is a sustained pattern of misconduct and malfeasance that would be unacceptable in any senior federal official but is particularly troubling for an inspector general,” Johnson said in her statement.
“That an IG, or his senior staff, would attempt to punish and silence whistleblowers within their own office flies in the face of everything we expect of an IG,” Johnson added.
Since last July, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been probing into allegations Zinser failed to discipline two employees in his office who intimidated potential whistleblowers. After Zinser defended his actions in a letter to Congress, lawmakers indicated they would look further into the alleged misconduct.
“Your response to our letter suggests that misconduct will not just be ignored by you, it will be defended by you with vigor,” the committee’s letter said. It added, “When an IG cannot effectively serve as a watchdog due to their own illegal conduct or lack of ethical grounding, that IG cannot maintain the trust and confidence of the Congress, agency employees or the public.”
A separate investigation by the Office of Special Counsel concluded there was no direct evidence proving Zinser knew his two employees engaged in misconduct.
Since then, a new complaint has emerged against Zinser. Rep. Johnson, during her speech on Thursday calling for his termination, referred to allegations that Zinser hired a woman he was romantically involved with for a senior executive job. Her salary -- a $150,000 plus annual bonuses.
Johnson said before the woman got the job, she was about to be turned down for a senior executive position in another office. There are questions about whether her qualifications were in line with the job she took in Zinser’s office.
An employee in the IG’s office implied there were issues with the hire in an email to the agency’s legal counsel obtained by The Washington Post.
Zinser, who previously served as the Transportation Department’s acting inspector general and deputy inspector general and who has a long history as a civil servant, denied any questionable hiring practices. He told the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) that the woman was hired solely “on business necessity, not on a personal relationship.” He said he was not romantically involved with her.
Zinser is not the only federal watchdog accused of wrongdoing. Last year a congressional report accused the Department of Homeland Security’s former acting IG of intentionally altering and blocking investigations.
The acting IG, Charles Edwards, allegedly took employees to dinner – then fed them information about his office’s investigations. Edwards was put on administrative leave and remained on the government’s payroll until at least October of last year.
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