Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., called on President Obama to appoint a new IG quickly.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., called on President Obama to appoint a new IG quickly. Scott Bauer / AP

Embattled Commerce Inspector General Abruptly Retires

A lawmaker and transparency group had called for his firing.

Todd Zinser, the controversial inspector general at the Commerce Department who made headlines after uncovering telecommuting abuses at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, retired suddenly on Wednesday, his staff said.

“After more than 31 years of public service, Inspector General Todd J. Zinser announced his retirement yesterday stating his desire to pursue opportunities outside of government service,” a Thursday press statement read, citing his seven and a half years on the job auditing a “vast array of business, scientific, economic and environmental programs and operations.”

Zinser had drawn heavy criticism on Capitol Hill and from whistleblower advocates who this spring called on President Obama to fire him for alleged retaliation against whistleblowers, improper hiring and gag rules his deputies imposed on staff.  

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said, “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.”

The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, the Government Accountability Project and the National Whistleblowers Center called for Zinser’s removal in April because “an IG cannot be effective at his job if he loses the confidence of his congressional overseers and his own staff,” a spokesman said.

"We're happy that Todd Zinser saw the writing on the wall," the group said in a statement Thursday. "Retaliating against whistleblowers is not acceptable and it's unconscionable when that retaliation is coming from someone who is supposed to be looking out for whistleblowers. Zinser's actions made him unfit to continue serving as inspector general."  

Zinser sent a farewell letter to staff in which he listed accomplishments in oversight of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellite acquisitions and fisheries enforcement programs; the 2010 census; the Patent office; the First Responder Network Authority; the Commerce Department’s cybersecurity; and the department’s handling of compliance and ethics matters. He also touted rehabilitating the inspector general function for the Denali Commission on Alaska infrastructure, “responsiveness and working with Congress, and maintaining the independence of OIG.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he respected Zinser’s decision. “In light of testimony [at the oversight panel’s IG hearing] yesterday about the president’s failure to fill critical IG positions in several federal agencies, I call on the president to promptly nominate a permanent replacement as inspector general at the Department of Commerce and to fill the other four presidentially appointed inspector general vacancies,” Johnson said.

The White House did not immediately respond to queries as to whether Zinser was asked to leave.