Commerce Department’s top watchdog faces congressional probe

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The top watchdog responsible for ferreting out wrongdoing at the Commerce Department is the subject of a broad congressional probe, with lawmakers from both parties alleging a pattern of behavior that “casts doubt” on his “reliability, veracity, trustworthiness, and ethical conduct.”

Lawmakers allege in a letter being released Thursday that Todd Zinser, the department’s inspector general for the past seven years, protected his top deputies when they were accused of intimidating staffers who sought to report potentially damaging information about him.

Zinser, in an interview, said he is successfully rebuilding an office that had some performance problems and is now the victim of exaggerated claims.

“There are some very bitter former employees who I believe are perpetuating these allegations and narrative,” he said. “I also believe there are political motivations on the part of some because I have been an independent and effective inspector general.”

The letter from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology calls on Zinser to immediately remove two top deputies who, investigators said, coerced whistleblowers into signing gag orders when they had complaints about Zinser.


Todd Zinser (Photo: Department of Commerce)

“To restore the trust of Congress and the American people, Mr. Zinser should immediately terminate these senior-level employees who failed to protect whistleblowers,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), the committee’s chairman, who joined with the ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.), and other members in writing to Zinser.

In interviews with The Washington Post, numerous former and current employees in Zinser’s office said he created a toxic work environment that is antithetical to the mission of a federal watchdog.

Edward L. Blansitt III, a former deputy inspector general who left in 2010 and is now Montgomery County’s inspector general, described Zinser’s office as a “pretty dysfunctional” place.

“He’s been hostile to people for no particularly great reason,” Blansitt said.

Much of the congressional focus on Zinser began as a result of a 2012 investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, the federal agency in charge of reviewing whistleblower complaints. The office concluded last year that Zinser’s two most trusted deputies — his counsel Wade Green and longtime friend Rick Beitel, the principal assistant inspector general for whistleblower protection — set out to gag two whistleblowers who were trying to leave the office for new jobs in August 2011.

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The report said Zinser’s office stalled on giving the two workers an approved release date, while Beitel did hasty performance appraisals of both workers and gave them the lowest possible rating.

The report said Green encouraged both to sign agreements vowing not to discuss their complaints about the office with the news media or Congress. The two workers were told the negative appraisals would not be given to their future employers if they agreed to the non­disclosure deals.

The report concluded that Green’s motivation was to protect Zinser.

Green and Beitel declined to comment Wednesday. Both have said they did not mean to intimidate anyone but were working on what they considered necessary appraisals and separation agreements.

Zinser said he thinks his employees were unjustly accused of interfering with the whistleblowers’ legally protected speech.

In their letter, the lawmakers say they were shocked to discover that Zinser had failed in his 2007 Senate confirmation process to disclose a 1996 incident at a different agency in which he was found to have retaliated against an office investigator who was making politically embarrassing claims.

Zinser said it was an honest oversight.

“I just never thought of myself as a subject [of the investigation], although maybe I was,” he said.

The committee is also investigating whether Zinser hired certain staffers when they were under a “professional cloud” and had been cited for performance problems. The committee’s letter says that they have information that his decision to hire one female staffer was “based on your personal relationship with her and not on her professional credentials.”

Zinser said there was nothing improper about him hiring a highly qualified manager who was a close personal friend. He said the romantic nature of their relationship predated her coming to work for him.
The lawmakers’ letter indicates that their investigation will continue to grow. It asks Zinser for extensive records from his office, including copies of his personal work journals.

Post Politics: Breaking Politics News, Political Analysis & More – The Washington Post

Race in purple Central Florida congressional district a bellwether

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SAFETY HARBOR, Fla. — Alex Sink was running late, but she was still in a chipper mood.

“How is everybody?” the Democrat cheerfully asked her team of door-knockers on a recent campaign swing this Central Florida district.

Judging by the usual campaign metrics, Sink has a lot to be upbeat about in her quest to replace one of the longest-serving Republicans in the history of the U.S. House. She faces a weak Republican field roiled by family drama, she is raising a lot of money and she boasts a résumé free of congressional baggage. She is the Democrats’ dream candidate for Congress.

But that this isn’t a usual campaign. It’s set against the backdrop of a disastrous couple of months for Democrats, who have been weighed down by the troubled rollout of the federal health-care law and a president who just suffered his worst year in the White House. If there’s going to be a political recovery, it has to begin in this swing district special election. All the fundamentals favor Sink, and a loss would confirm all the Democratic anxiety about the political liability of the health-care issue going into the November midterm elections.

The field will be whittled Tuesday, when Republicans select their nominee to run against Sink, who is unopposed on the Democratic side. The GOP front-runner is David Jolly, a former lobbyist who’s fashioned himself as a natural successor to late Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, his old boss and a man regarded as political royalty in this Gulf Coast district just west of Tampa. Jolly is eager to shape the election as a referendum on the Affordable Care Act.

“When I got into this race, I wanted to talk about a whole lot of things,” including fiscal matters, he said. “But without a doubt, day one, the issue was Obamacare. The voters have made that the issue.”

Sink doesn’t agree. In her view, the race will pivot on a broader range of topics.

“Hardly anybody is walking up to me saying Obamacare is the thing that they care the most about,” Sink said. “They are caring about dysfunction, they are caring about the flood- insurance issues.”

But the law continues to receive widespread attention nationally, suggesting it will factor into the outcome of the contest, especially since Republicans are expected to raise it at every turn.

When Sink entered the race in late October, the government shutdown had tarnished the GOP’s image and breathed new life into Democrats’ long-shot hopes of winning back the House majority. But since then, problems with and the revelation that some Americans stood to lose their coverage swiftly curtailed that momentum. Now, Democrats’ Senate majority has been imperiled and their odds of retaking the House have gone from slim to virtually nonexistent.

The result is that Sink, a former state chief financial officer and 2010 nominee for governor, is in an unexpectedly precarious position. She says the health-care law ought to be repaired rather than repealed, a position most Democratic congressional candidates have adopted.

“My approach would be, let’s take what we have and fix the things that are wrong and make them work,” she said.

All three Republican candidates on Tuesday’s ballot favor repeal. Jolly has even sought to cast himself as a harder-line advocate than state Rep. Kathleen Peters (R). Democrats think repeal is an over-correction that will be received poorly by voters. The sharp contrast in positions has turned the race into a closely watched testing ground for the potency of each message. The 13th District is a purple terrain that President Obama carried in 2012 by fewer than two points.

“It’s not only the subject matter, it’s the mechanics of how you campaign that you can learn a lot about from these kinds of districts. And I think you’re going to see that with this one,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus.

The winner of the March election will have enormous shoes to fill. Young represented this area for more than four decades before his death in October. The moderate Republican and legendary lawmaker was beloved by constituents.

But Young’s legislative legacy has been overshadowed in the closing stage of the primary by his personal life. A report in the Tampa Bay Times detailed his first marriage and distant relationship with his children from that marriage, which mostly remained tucked away from the public’s view for decades.

Meanwhile, Young’s widow, Beverly Young, wants Jolly to fill the seat. Bill Young II, the son of Beverly and Bill, is backing Peters.

Jolly’s first TV ad featured Beverly Young saying, “David will continue what Bill Young started.” A former Young aide turned lobbyist, Jolly was not seen as a top recruit for the race. But after bigger names passed, Jolly seized the advantage, outspending his opponents on TV advertising.

Peters said she opted to run to give voters a choice.

“I didn’t think we were a coronation state,” she said.

Retired Marine Brig. Gen. Mark Bircher is the third candidate in the race. The political newcomer is backed by former congressman Allen West (R-Fla.), a tea party favorite. He said he made of spur of the moment decision to run out of concern for his son’s future.

“I literally went on to Google and said, ‘How do you run for Congress in Florida,’ ” Bircher said.

The messy Republican primary has allowed Sink to lie low and gear up for the March election. She raised more money than the entire GOP field combined, according to recent campaign finance reports.

Demographically, the district is fertile territory for Republicans. It’s predominately white and older than most areas. Jolly has made a concerted effort to reach out to elderly voters, who in general tend to vote Republican. He stopped by a sock hop last week where seniors danced to “Barbara Ann” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” One of his TV ads features Bob Barker, the former host of “The Price Is Right.”

Still, Republicans and Democrats agree that the path to victory here does not lie in being an ideologue. This district is no tea party stronghold. The GOP voters here are within Sink’s reach.

“They drive Volvos, they go to Starbucks, they care about the environment and they are being more pro-choice,” said Dave Beattie, a Democratic strategist who polled for Sink’s gubernatorial campaign.

In addition to trying to tie Sink to national Democrats, Republicans intend to cast her as a carpetbagger. She moved into the district from Thonotosassa — about 30 miles away — shortly after announcing her campaign. If Jolly is the nominee, Democrats are ready with their own label for him: “Washington lobbyist.”

But Jolly says he is “proud of the fact” that he knows “how to work with a very complex federal government.”

And Sink rejects the carpetbagger label. She noted that she has years of business experience in the area and represented the district as state chief financial officer. Sink carried the district when she ran for governor.

“It’s not like I moved from Miami,” she said.

Post Politics: Breaking Politics News, Political Analysis & More – The Washington Post