Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Watchdog Faces Three Investigations

Expenditures, Reassignments by Commerce Dept.'s Inspector General Challenged

By Joe Stephens and John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007; A04

The inspector general of the Department of Commerce, the watchdog charged with rooting out wrongdoing at the agency, is himself the subject of three separate government investigations into allegations that he misspent his budget and retaliated against employees who raised concerns about his actions.

Last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.); Rep. Joe L. Barton (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the panel; and two other members sent an eight-page letter to the inspector general, Johnnie E. Frazier, demanding scores of records. Investigators from two executive-branch agencies have also been looking into Frazier's conduct.

Among the allegations are that he engaged in questionable travel at taxpayer expense, at times over weekends and accompanied by his grandchildren, to cities where the inspector general does not have offices, according to documents and interviews with people close to the inquiries. The investigators are also interested in whether Frazier improperly arranged for a no-bid $150,000 contract to be awarded to a consulting company that the committee's letter alleges was "connected" to a retiring employee of Frazier's office.

A number of senior staff members, including Frazier's deputy, have been reassigned in recent months. At least two have sought whistle-blower protection by alleging that Frazier retaliated against them, and a third has contacted the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination and retaliation, according to the people interviewed.

Frazier declined to comment. He referred reporters to a statement from his office's acting legal counsel, Carolyn Croak, which said that officials in the inspector general's office are "cooperating fully with these investigations and look forward to their speedy resolution."

Among the accusations mentioned in Dingell's letter was that Frazier cut short a government conference so he and senior managers could go gambling in Atlantic City.

"Numerous current and former employees have made serious allegations against you and the way that you have managed your office," Dingell and his colleagues wrote. "They have provided the Committee on Energy and Commerce with credible allegations of serious and widespread fraud, waste, and abuse within your office that involves not only you personally, but also many members of your current management team."

The letter directs Frazier to preserve all records related to the investigation, noting that some witnesses had told the committee that records have been "destroyed, altered and/or tampered with."

Documents obtained by The Washington Post show that inquiries are also underway at the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that enforces the Whistleblower Protection Act, and at the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which reviews complaints against inspectors general. The statement from Croak noted that the President's Council closed one of its two inquiries into Frazier's activities, and suggested that the closure meant "the allegations were not substantiated."

Frazier's official biography says that he is a member of the President's Council and is chairman of the organization's committee on inspection and evaluation.

Frazier's office is responsible for monitoring the expenditure of $6 billion a year through the Commerce Department, which, among other functions, oversees the National Weather Service and the Patent and Trademark Office.

Frazier was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1999 after his predecessor, Francis D. DeGeorge, resigned amid controversy. DeGeorge later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge related to job discussions he had with a contractor.

The investigations into Frazier's conduct date to last fall, when he took a week-long trip to Boston and New York. When he returned, Frazier asked his deputy, Edward Blansitt, to sign off on his expenses, according to a complaint Blansitt filed with the President's Council.

Blansitt said in the complaint that he refused to approve the expenses because Frazier appeared to have had "one relatively short business meeting" over the week.

The council closed its inquiry after an explanation from Frazier, records show, but it opened another -- into whether he ended a large staff meeting in Philadelphia early "for the specific purpose of allowing yourself [Frazier] and another OIG [Office of the Inspector General] employee the time to drive to Atlantic City to gamble."

Shortly after Blansitt filed the original complaint, Frazier reassigned him to the post of assistant inspector general for investigations, said sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Frazier also removed his office's legal counsel, Allison Lerner, from her position and named her deputy assistant inspector general for audits, according to a complaint Lerner filed with the President's Council.

Blansitt and Lerner declined to comment for this article, but the sources said that each has filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, alleging to be a victim of retaliation. They are seeking protections available to whistle-blowers under federal law.

A January letter from the Office of Special Counsel to the Commerce Department says that the counsel is investigating allegations that unnamed officials in the inspector general's office retaliated against employees who "divulged information" to the President's Council. The letter seeks documents, including personnel records and travel vouchers.

Besides Frazier's travel expenses and the no-bid contract, House investigators are interested in the large sums spent on remodeling a conference room and on an aborted plan to reconfigure work spaces. Workers said walls were demolished and traditional private offices reconfigured to accommodate new, open-plan modular furniture bought at taxpayer expense. But the months-long redesign was then reversed.

One internal e-mail obtained by The Post suggests that the project not only caused lengthy disruptions in the office but may also have cost taxpayers more than $100,000.

Dingell's letter says his committee interviewed people who said that Frazier traveled regularly without a clear governmental purpose, charged for first-class accommodations and took along an excessive number of subordinates. It also questions whether Frazier gave a government bonus as a wedding gift to a member of his management team.

The letter asks that Frazier bring in a third party, such as another agency's inspector general, to oversee the gathering of the documents requested by the committee.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like the exact same thing that's going on at U.S. Department of Education OIG!

Marc Parent mparent7777 mparent CCNWON said...