By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
A U.S. official overseeing a probe of potential White House misconduct declared through a spokesman yesterday that he will not give federal investigators copies of personal files that he deleted from his office computer.
The decision by Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch escalates the confrontation between the Bush appointee and the White House, each of which is investigating the other.
Bloch's office is tasked with upholding laws against whistle-blower retaliation and partisan politicking in federal agencies. Earlier this year, Bloch directed lawyers in his office to look into charges that former Bush adviser Karl Rove inappropriately deployed government employees in Republican political campaigns.
Bloch had previously been targeted by the White House, which in 2005 asked the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to investigate allegations that Bloch had retaliated against whistle-blowers among his own staff members and improperly dismissed whistle-blower cases brought to the agency by others.
Bloch said in a written statement that the personal computer records requested by the OPM are not relevant to its investigation, which he earlier called a "fishing expedition."
Bloch's office confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that he had hired Geeks On Call, a commercial computer service, to "scrub" the hard drive of his computer, and that the technicians scrubbed the hard drives of laptop computers used by two aides. Bloch said he took that action after malfunctions led him to believe a virus was destroying his files.
But the process used by the technicians to wipe the hard drives, Bloch's office confirmed, was more thorough than necessary to kill a virus. The effort raised questions, two officials close to the case said, about whether Bloch was attempting to obstruct the OPM investigation -- an allegation that he denies.
Through a spokesman, Bloch said he does not recall ordering the erasure of data in the hard drives of laptops used by chief of staff J.R. Sanchez and another top aide who had left the agency. Bloch had asked that the files in his computer be encrypted and moved to a portable "thumb drive," which he carries on his keychain, his spokesman said.
This month, the Office of Personnel Management sent a letter to Bloch requesting access to his America Online account, which he uses for personal e-mail communication. The letter further asked him to surrender the files transferred to the thumb drive.
"The computer files were from the internal hard drive of my laptop, and did not include my official work files and e-mail, which are stored on the office network hard drives," Bloch said in the statement.
"After the laptop hard drive had crashed, which at the time I believed could have been caused by a virus, I wanted to protect my personal files. These included private personal and medical information, privileged communications with my personal attorney, my son's pictures from his tours in Iraq, Christmas lists, etc.," Bloch said.
"None of this is relevant to the investigation, nor has OPM IG [the office of the OPM's inspector general] informed me of any such allegations. Further, I am concerned that individuals close to the investigation leaked a document related to the computer maintenance with an intent to cast suspicion on me with no proof of any wrongdoing."
OPM spokesman Peter Graves said the agency will not comment on an ongoing investigation. Attorneys representing the staff members in the complaints against Bloch cited the latest dispute in calling for his resignation.
"At the time that he initiated this probe of Karl Rove, we thought he was doing this to make himself bulletproof so the White House could not take disciplinary action against him," said Debra Katz, an attorney for the staff members. Bloch denied that charge and said the Rove investigation is the responsibility of his office.