Karl Rove is under investigation by the executive branch. So, too, is his investigator.
On Tuesday, The Los Angeles Times reported that the Office of Special Counsel, an obscure federal investigative and prosecutorial agency that is supposed to protect federal employees from prohibited personnel practices, is
preparing to jump into one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive issues in Washington, launching a broad investigation into key elements of the White House political operations that for more than six years have been headed by chief strategist Karl Rove.
The new investigation, which will examine the firing of at least one U.S. attorney, missing White House emails, and White House efforts to keep presidential appointees attuned to Republican political priorities, could create a substantial new problem for the Bush White House.
Rove is tied to all three elements of the OSC investigation. “We will take the evidence where it leads us,” Scott Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel, told The Los Angeles Times. “We will not leave any stone unturned.”
But who is Scott Bloch, and should his vow be taken at face value? The Times story did not provide background on the fellow who will be examining whether Rove and other administration officials may have violated the law by using political email accounts for White House business, by explicitly encouraging government actions for direct partisan gains, and by dismissing David Iglesias, a US attorney in New Mexico. Bloch is a George W. Bush appointee, and his recent record is not one of a relentless pursuer of government corruption and wrongdoing. Here’s an overview:
* In February, The Washington Post reported Bloch himself was under investigation:
The Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general has been investigating allegations by current and former OSC employees that Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch retaliated against underlings who disagreed with his policies–by, among other means, transferring them out of state–and tossed out legitimate whistle-blower cases to reduce the office backlog. Bloch denies the accusations, saying that under his leadership the agency has grown more efficient and receptive to whistle-blowers.
The 16-month investigation has been beset by delays, accusations and counter-accusations. The latest problem began two weeks ago, when Bloch’s deputy sent staffers a memo asking them to inform OSC higher-ups when investigators contact them. Further, the memo read, employees should meet with investigators in the office, in a special conference room. Some employees cried foul, saying the recommendations made them afraid to be interviewed in the probe.
The OSC’s memo, the group said, “was only the latest in a series of actions by Bloch to obstruct” the investigation. “Other actions have included suggestions that all witnesses interviewed…provide Bloch with affidavits describing what they had been asked and how they responded.”
* Two years earlier, the paper reported that Bloch had declined to enforce a discrimination ban:
Since taking office in January 2004, the Bush appointee has been accused of failing to enforce a long-standing policy against bias in the federal workplace based on sexual orientation, unnecessarily reorganizing the OSC to try to run off internal critics, and arbitrarily dismissing some personnel complaints and whistle-blower disclosures in an effort to claim reductions in backlogs.
He has denied such allegations and argued that he has made the agency more efficient at processing cases and, at the same time, more receptive to whistle-blowers and federal workers who have suffered unfair treatment.
* That same year, public interest groups and employees at the OSC accused Bloch of running an overly partisan shop. As Govexec.com reported:
Amendments to a complaint filed against Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch in early March allege that OSC took no action on a complaint regarding then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s use of government funds to travel in the weeks before the 2004 presidential election, but vigorously pursued allegations against Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry’s visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Three nonprofit whistleblower protection groups–the Government Accountability Project, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Project on Government Oversight–and anonymous career OSC employees filed the initial complaint March 3, listing a series of prohibited personnel practices and violations of civil service laws by Bloch.
The politicization allegations stem from Bloch’s decision to have a group of lawyers report to a political deputy rather than a career senior executive. The complaint states that OSC has pursued trivial matters without regard to political affiliation…but has not evenly handled higher profile cases.
At the OSC, Bloch is supposed to protect whistleblowers. But he’s been charged with reprising against those who challenge his agency and others. Before Bloch was appointed by Bush to take over the OSC, he was a deputy director and counsel at the Justice Department’s Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives.
“By most measures, his tenure has been an absolute failure,” says Adam Miles, legislative representative at the Government Accountability Project. “He’s been under pressure to start doing something.” Miles notes that GAP did not initially expect the complaint it filed against Bloch in 2005 to go anywhere. “It was referred to a federal entity called the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency,” Miles recalls, “and we thought it would just rot there.” But the case was handed to Pat McFarland, the inspector general for the Office of Personnel Management. McFarland is a former St. Louis detective who spent 22 years as a Secret Service agent before becoming IG at OPM in 1990.
McFarland’s investigation of Bloch, Miles says, “hasn’t been a totally transparent process but we’re hearing it’s reaching a conclusion–which could be motivation for Bloch to start this investigation into the White House. If OPM does turn up any adverse information on Bloch, it would be more difficult for the White House to get rid of him while he was actively investigating them.” But this could cut the other way. If Bloch is the subject of an investigation, he might be inclined to treat the White House favorably to protect his own position. In either case, there seems to be a conflict of interest. Bloch, Miles says, “may not be the appropriate person to be conducting the investigation” of Rove and the White House.
It is a dizzying situation. The investigator investigating officials who oversee the agency that is investigating the investigator. Forget firewalls. This looks more like a basement flooded with backed-up sewage–with the water rising.
With reporting by Stephanie Condon.
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