COMMERCE:

2 plead guilty to false claims as embattled IG ties them to his own troubles

A pair of former special agents in the Commerce Department's Office of Inspector General pleaded guilty yesterday to submitting tens of thousands of dollars' worth of false reimbursement claims related to their relocations from Atlanta to Washington, D.C.

But it's what the defendants didn't plead guilty to that could continue to have ramifications for Commerce Inspector General Todd Zinser, who is fighting charges of mismanagement and bullying whistle-blowers in his office.

In yesterday's news release from the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland announcing the guilty pleas of Rachel Ondrik, 35, and Kirk Yamatani, 38, Zinser said the two were also involved in an effort to disparage his office.

"In addition to the fraud perpetrated on the U.S. taxpayers, these now former employees also retaliated by carrying out a destructive campaign of disparagement and false allegations against the Office of Inspector General (OIG)," Zinser said.

But the statement of facts included in Ondrik and Yamatani's plea agreement makes no mention of such an effort.

Asked today whether he was connecting Ondrik and Yamatani to an ongoing Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigation into his own office, Zinser said the OSC has yet to publicly name the complainants in that case but that "I think it's possible."

But Zinser's statement angered the lawyers for Ondrik and Yamatani, who will each be required to pay $42,000 in fines and restitution and serve probation as a result of their guilty pleas.

"We believe that the Office of Special Counsel's investigation of Mr. Zinser stands on its own," the lawyers, Steven Levin and Thomas Abbenante, said in a joint statement. "It is our understanding that Mr. Zinser's alleged misconduct against other special agents is a separate and unrelated matter. Mr. Zinser's apparent efforts to absolve himself of any of his own alleged wrongdoing by connecting these two matters in a press release was obviously inappropriate and self-serving."

The OSC has alleged in a filing with the board that handles federal employee personnel complaints that Zinser threatened some departing staffers with poor performance reviews unless they signed agreements promising not to disparage the office. The complainants alleged that the agreements were meant to keep a lid on wrongdoing in the office.

In light of those accusations -- as well as concerns about office morale and how Zinser handled complaints related to the mismanagement of appropriated funds at the National Weather Service -- Democrats on the House Space, Science and Technology Committee have asked the Government Accountability Office to launch a top-to-bottom review of the IG's office (Greenwire, March 25).

A GAO spokesman said this afternoon that the agency is still discussing the proposed review of the IG's office but has not made a decision yet about whether it will move forward with the project.

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

A spokesman for the OSC declined to discuss specifics of the case today but said the investigation of Zinser is ongoing.

"OSC has an ongoing investigation of allegations of prohibited personnel practices brought to OSC by several former employees of the Department of Commerce OIG," Adam Miles said. "OSC encourages all parties to respect the integrity of the investigative process and has no further comment at this time."