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An inspector general finds himself on the wrong side of an investigation

Federal inspectors general aren't supposed to be headliners. They're supposed to let their audits, investigations and reports take center stage.

But Todd Zinser, the Department of Commerce's inspector general since late 2007, has recently found himself in the spotlight's glare.

And the show hasn't been pretty.

In an interview in his corner office at Commerce last week, Zinser acknowledged that his integrity has come under fire in recent months -- a very big problem in his line of work.

For an agency watchdog to be accused of mismanagement and bullying whistle-blowers, as he has, "it's definitely a 'man bites dog' story," the soft-spoken Zinser said. "It is definitely an issue for me."

But Zinser said the picture of him that's emerged in recent months is incomplete.

To be sure, Zinser isn't the only inspector general who has been the subject of controversy lately. Congressional Republicans have in recent months been critical of the Interior Department's acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, arguing that she has taken an accommodating approach when it comes to agency leadership that has undermined the independence of her office (E&ENews PM, Feb. 21).

For Zinser, the negative publicity began last fall when the House Space, Science and Technology Committee grilled him at a hearing about why it took him more than a year to pursue office hotline complaints about the mismanagement of appropriated funds at the National Weather Service. Lawmakers also expressed shock that, when he did look into the matter, Zinser decided to turn the investigation over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Service's parent agency -- thus allowing the agency to essentially investigate itself (E&E Daily, Sept. 13, 2012).

Then in late November 2012, the board that handles federal employee personnel complaints revealed Zinser's office was under investigation for allegedly threatening some departing staffers with poor performance reviews unless they signed agreements promising not to disparage the office to members of Congress, the media or others after they left.

Allegations included in the Merit Systems Protection Board's Nov. 29, 2012, release paint Zinser as a controlling and vindictive boss paranoid about anyone saying anything bad about him.

"The ultimate irony is that these gag agreements were coerced by an Inspector General -- the very person sworn to protect a federal agency's employees from prohibited personnel practices and to uphold the merits system principles," says a filing by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which is investigating the case.

And then, late last month, House Space, Science and Technology Committee Democrats sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office seeking a top-to-bottom review of Zinser's office to investigate what they described as "a pattern of management that is not conducive to good accountability work" (E&ENews PM, Feb. 27).

A GAO spokesman said last week the agency had received the request, but it's still being reviewed and no decision has been made on whether to investigate Zinser's office.

But among the issues raised by the committee members in their letter to GAO was an Office of Personnel Management survey that showed that in 2012 Zinser's office had a next-to-last ranking -- 291 out of 292 -- on a survey assessing the best -- and worst -- places to work in the federal government. Only the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Undersecretary for Science and Technology finished below Zinser's office.

In that survey, fewer than half the employees in Zinser's office responded positively to a question about whether office leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.

"The survey responses indicate that a major crisis exists in the leadership and management of the Department of Commerce's Office of Inspector General," Science Committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said in a statement released with the GAO letter.

'Janitor general'

Though he's spent most of the past 20 years in Washington, D.C., where he has raised three children, Zinser has Midwestern roots.

A Cincinnati native, he earned his bachelor's degree in political science from Northern Kentucky University and a master's degree in political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His earliest experience in D.C. came through an internship in the Carter White House, where he helped work on the Rural Development Policy Act of 1980.

Zinser was sworn in as Commerce IG in December 2007 after 24 years as a civil servant. He began his career as an investigator for the Department of Labor before joining the Department of Transportation, where he eventually rose to the job of deputy inspector general and served as acting IG for a time.

To hear Zinser explain it, the criticism he's taken in recent months is the unfortunate byproduct of his effort to reform and improve his office and the agency as a whole.

Far from a control freak, Zinser said, he sees himself as a man who has been working for the past five-plus years to right the ship at the Commerce IG's office.

When he took over the job at Commerce, Zinser said, "this office needed a lot of changes."

Take the OMB annual survey results, for example.

Some of the poor scores, he said, can be attributed to his multiyear effort to revamp the way staff evaluations are conducted in the office.

The old system that employees operated under when he first arrived simply didn't reflect reality, Zinser said. A review of staff performance from the year before he took over the office showed that some 70 percent of the employees were rated as outstanding.

"Everybody was given a five," he said. "That's not reality."

So Zinser said that he's worked, over the course of several years, to revamp the review process to reflect a "more normal distribution" of scores. Today he believes he has accomplished that, but he acknowledges that some of the staff didn't like the change.

And he believes some employees have expressed that displeasure in the OMB annual surveys.

"You can't underestimate the impact of that."

Zinser may have also ruffled feathers with a major overhaul in recent years of his audit office. He says that before he first arrived at Commerce, few people in that office seemed to know what their colleagues were working on.

And then there's the National Weather Service reprogramming issue.

Zinser has acknowledged that at the time the complaints first came into the IG hotline several years ago, his complaint review process was not where it should be. He has said that he has since overhauled and strengthened the office's review process.

But Zinser also said that case exposed some of the larger cultural problems he has worked to change in his time at Commerce.

"There are many days that I come in here and feel like changing the sign on the door from inspector general to janitor general," he said. "Because there are managers who think that the IG's job is to go around and clean up their messes, and it's not my job to do that. My job is to oversee how well they clean up their own messes."

Zinser has argued that the Anti-Deficiency Act issues that came up in that case are, by law, the responsibility of the agency's chief financial officer. As such, Zinser believes he acted appropriately in referring the issue outside his office.

And finally, there are the many problems he says he has uncovered in the IG's own investigations office.

'These people are all friends here'

Two years into his job at Commerce, Zinser said, he realized that he had some major problems when it came to the types of investigations his staff were pursuing and how they went about that work.

Zinser, who came up through the investigations side of IG work, believed his investigators weren't closing cases in a timely manner, and what was being processed didn't seem to Zinser to be worth the time and effort.

By early 2011, Zinser said, he was so concerned about the office that he began looking into areas beyond just caseload and management. And that led to his inventory of the weapons assigned to IG special agents.

Zinser said he was disturbed by what he found in that review. It turns out the office had three firearms for every agent. And there were several fully automatic submachine guns stored in the office that Zinser hadn't even known about.

The reason he didn't know about them, Zinser said, was that members of his management team had retroactively modified an acquisition policy to delete a requirement that would have required his approval before the weapons were obtained.

"That's a problem," he said. "I don't know a single IG in this community that would tolerate that."

A review was conducted, and, during the course of that inquiry, some managers chose to leave.

Before they departed, Zinser said, separation agreements were signed, and he acknowledged that those agreements included a nondisparagement clause.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has argued in a filing with the Merit Systems Protection Board that the employees were coerced into signing the agreements by the threat of failing performance reviews being put in their files.

OSC argues that the agreement was designed "to chill the former employees from whistle-blowing, cooperating with OSC and reporting wrongdoing to the United States Congress" when it came to the office.

Zinser was hesitant to discuss those allegations because the OSC probe of the matter is ongoing, but he disputed the idea that there was any sort of gag order.

"If you have employees that are going through hallways in a very small office making allegations against you, that takes its toll on the staff," he said. "I'm not saying that's all of it. But we're a very small office. ... These people are all friends here."

He said he wasn't involved in the exact details of those agreements as they were negotiated between lawyers for his office and the departing employees.

The Merit Systems Protection Board ruled late last year that those agreements should be temporarily lifted. After that ruling, the IG's office agreed not to enforce the nondisparagement clauses in the separation agreements.

"We're encouraged that the IG agreed not to enforce the nondisparagement clauses in question and have no further comment on OSC's investigation at this time," an OSC spokeswoman said last week.

'I was not in Kansas anymore'

If he is a control freak, Zinser has been fairly successful at avoiding drawing attention to himself until now.

Besides the occasional appearance on C-SPAN, Zinser generally seems uncomfortable in the spotlight.

"I'm not a headline grabber," he acknowledged. "I've always been kind of the administrator type."

Still, a few of Zinser's investigations have made news.

His office has been highly critical of NOAA regarding what it found to be excessive enforcement efforts at New England fisheries. Zinser won praise from lawmakers, including Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), for his work on that case. But a Commerce federal employees group also criticized that investigation for what it believed was the scapegoating of NOAA staff because a few members of Congress didn't like the law that had been passed (E&ENews PM, Jan. 21, 2010).

And a little more than a year into the Commerce job, Zinser also made waves when he subpoenaed the National Wildlife Federation to demand it disclose the source of a leaked document that outlined the George W. Bush administration's planned changes for the Endangered Species Act (Greenwire, March 10, 2009).

It was a move that landed him squarely in the middle of a political dispute, with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on one side and environmental groups on the other. After Zinser took the step of issuing a subpoena, some good governance groups questioned whether the investigation would have a chilling effect on federal whistle-blowers.

While the matter eventually died after the Obama administration struck down the proposed revision, Zinser said the case was a wake-up call for him that the Commerce job involved a lot more potential political land mines than he was used to coming from the Department of Transportation.

"That was very instructive," he said. "I was not in Kansas anymore, that's for sure."

But, he said, as an inspector general, "if you start trying to pick and choose which requests you respond to based on whether it's controversial or not, you're not going to be able to do your job."

Zinser said he has never met any of the Democratic members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee who wrote to GAO asking for an investigation, but he said he'd welcome the review. He also believes most people on the Hill who know him personally support his work.

Earlier this month, one of those members, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), made a point in an Appropriations Committee hearing to praise Zinser and his long years of service.

Wolf "knows him and believes him to be a responsible IG and a man of integrity," the lawmaker's spokeswoman said in a recent interview.

And despite the bad publicity, Zinser said he takes solace in the fact that even some of his critics still understand the value of the work his office does.

Last month, a bipartisan group of House Space, Science and Technology Committee members -- including Reps. Johnson and Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.), who both signed on to the GAO letter -- sent a letter to NOAA leaders expressing their dismay when reports surfaced that Zinser's staff had been prohibited from attending meetings about weather satellites.

"The good thing is at least the subcommittee isn't projecting their issues with me onto the rest of my staff," Zinser said of the letter to NOAA leadership. "They are still expressing confidence in my staff's ability to go into those meetings and be fair and objective."

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