Abruptly Departed Commerce Watchdog Faulted For Audit Gaps, Low Morale

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said that with Zinser's departure, she is "hopeful that the Commerce IG’s office has finally rid itself of one of its greatest obstacles to increasing its effectiveness, efficiency and aggressive oversight." Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said that with Zinser's departure, she is "hopeful that the Commerce IG’s office has finally rid itself of one of its greatest obstacles to increasing its effectiveness, efficiency and aggressive oversight." Bill Ingalls/NASA file photo

Todd Zinser, the controversial Commerce Department inspector general who abruptly retired last month, skipped audits of some programs designated as high-risk and left an agency staff with continuously low morale, the Government Accountability Office concluded.

The July 10 report—requested by several House members who had investigated Zinser for years and called for his resignation—cites an acceptable level of monetary returns from audits and notes that his team was operating with the lowest budget of any comparable agency IG.

The budget for the Commerce watchdog’s office fell from $47 million to about $41 million, or almost 13 percent, compared to the average reduction of about 6 percent for all other Cabinet-level OIGs, GAO noted. Staff shrunk from 171 to 137, or about 20 percent, a greater decline than the average of about 5 percent for the other OIGs.

While the Commerce IG's return on each budget dollar was within the range of the lowest and highest returns for all other OIGs for fiscal 2011 through 2013, its average return of $4.18 over the three-year period was less than the average return of about $22.64 for the other Cabinet-level OIGs, GAO found.

In prioritizing audits under a shrinking budget, Zinser’s team audited the main Commerce bureaus and programs it identified as management challenges, the report said. But that meant skipping over some of Commerce's smaller bureaus and offices, which had combined fiscal 2013 budgets of some $2.4 billion, as well as several programs GAO had flagged as high-risk, among them managing federal real property and ensuring the effective protection of technologies critical to national security interests.

The Commerce IG ran the whistleblower hotlines with procedures largely consistent with practices recommended by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, GAO said. But in a review of a random sample of OIG hotline cases from fiscal years 2011 through 2013, GAO identified numerous instances where the OIG did not adequately monitor the hotlines or follow one or more of its own procedures regarding the processing, disposition and timeliness of cases. (Alleged gagging of whistleblowers by Commerce IG deputies was one complaint by lawmakers scrutinizing Zinser.) Not all tips were recorded in proper detail or resolved within ideal time frames.

On morale issues, the IG achieved some improvement in scores on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey from 2012 to 2013, GAO said, “but responses to specific survey questions remain lower than the governmentwide average” and no action plan for progress was created, it said. Even with its rising scores, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service ranked the Commerce OIG at 281 out of 300 subcomponent agencies in fiscal 2013 and at 262 out of 315 in fiscal 2014, GAO said. “OIG employee responses remain significantly more negative than the governmentwide average for specific questions,” the report stated.

The IG’s office, being led on an acting basis by David Smith, agreed with GAO recommendations that it rotate performance audits, better monitor the hotline and create an action plan for improvements.

“The Office of Inspector General appreciates the work of the Government Accountability Office and the concerns it raised regarding past management of the office,” IG spokesman Clark Reid said in a statement to Government Executive. “We are working to address the findings and recommendations in the report. Going forward, OIG will work to build a solid and constructive relationship with all of our stakeholders including the department and Congress.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, the ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee who with Republicans requested the report, said in a statement:  “While I am glad GAO finally completed its report on the Commerce IG’s office, which I asked for more than two years ago, I believe some of the issues they have identified have been overtaken by events with the abrupt retirement of the Commerce IG Todd Zinser…  As I detailed in public remarks I made in March, Mr. Zinser had been engaged in gross mismanagement of his office and personal misconduct of his position for many years. With Mr. Zinser’s departure I am now hopeful that the Commerce IG’s office has finally rid itself of one of its greatest obstacles to increasing its effectiveness, efficiency and aggressive oversight of the Department of Commerce.”

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