This story has been updated.
Making good on a promise issued on the House floor last week, the top Democrat on the chamber’s Science panel on Tuesday wrote to President Obama with a call to remove the inspector general at the Commerce Department, citing years of misconduct ranging from punishing whistleblowers to hiring an intimate friend.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, wrote, “I am convinced that in order to establish an effective and ethically sound office, a wholesale change in the top leadership of the Commerce Office of Inspector General is critically needed. I call on you to remove Mr. [Todd] Zinser from office immediately and to take such other steps as are necessary to appoint qualified senior leadership with high ethical principles to lead the Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General.”
Johnson, along with other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, has been investigating Zinser for three years.
On March 26 Johnson took to the House floor to lay out a detailed case against the IG, which began with information from 2012 that he had declined to investigate or notify the Science, Space and Technology Committee that top employees at the National Weather Service were violating the Anti-Deficiency Act and running an illegal accounting scam.
“The evidence the committee obtained regarding Mr. Zinser’s personal misconduct and professional mismanagement of his office is overwhelming,” Johnson said. She laid out a multi-page narrative in the Congressional Record detailing Zinser’s clashes with the Office of Special Counsel over gag rules his deputies are said to have imposed on his staff and his hiring of an alleged past romantic partner for a high-level job in a swank office after Zinser himself had exposed similar misconduct at the Patent Office.
Zinser’s friend became “assistant inspector general for administration—a [Senior Executive Service] position that paid $150,000 a year,” Johnson’s statement said. “Subsequently, Mr. Zinser directly approved three SES Performance Bonuses for her from January 2011 to October 2012 totaling $28,199.”
Johnson noted that human resources officials had expressed doubts about the hire. “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,” she said.
She wrote the letter without Republicans on the panel.
Zinser, who made headlines last year for exposing telecommuting abuses at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, issued a statement from his office to Government Executive and other news outlets saying, he had “cooperated with the committee and the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, and will continue to do so." He earlier told IG council investigators that his friend was hired solely as a business necessity and that they were not romantically involved, as reported by The Washington Post.
Zinser is a former acting inspector general at the Transportation Department, who moved to Commerce in 2007.
Congressional investigators and a Commerce staffer using the Freedom of Information Act have found documents suggesting that Zinser and his top aides have also monitored the emails of at least six employees. They also noted that Zinser never disclosed to the White House when under consideration to move to Commerce that he had been investigated by the Office of Special Counsel in 1996 while at Transportation for trying to blackball the career of a special agent who reported illegal shifting of funds to local transportation projects.
And last September on Labor Day, Johnson said, six days after the committee had sent Zinser a letter accusing him of hunting for whistleblowers on his staff, the IG was “seen using his personal hand-truck to remove two banker’s boxes of materials to his car.” She said the committee has “evidence that IG Zinser conducted his removal of this materiel with great haste. He was in and out of his office with his two boxes of material inside of 30 minutes.”
An issue that arose more recently involved a complaint investigated by the Commerce Office of Civil Rights that Zinser had monitored emails of a staffer-turned-whistleblower who had filed an age discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Zinser in sworn testimony called the allegation “a complete 100 percent fabrication,” according to Johnson's statement, but the civil rights office said Zinser’s rebuttal did not “fully mesh with the documentary evidence.”
In anticipation of Johnson’s call for removal of Zinser, the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which tracks both IGs and whistleblower cases, is planning a letter echoing the call for his firing. “The committee's bipartisan probe has uncovered a long-standing culture of whistleblower retaliation at the Commerce IG's office that continues to the present day,” investigator Michael Smallberg said in an email to Government Executive. “An IG cannot be effective at his job if he loses the confidence of his congressional overseers and his own staff. The president should have all the information he needs to remove Zinser, and to replace him with a qualified IG who will restore the office's integrity.”
Correction: It was Zinser's deputies who were said to have gagged whistleblowers in the 2013 investigation by the Office of Special Counsel -- no documentation was found that Zinser himself did. And Zinser was acting IG at the Transportation Department.