By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Last September, career investigators at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel opened a probe into whether partisan politics were a factor in the Justice Department's prosecution of former Democratic Alabama governor Don Siegelman on corruption charges in 2006.
Siegelman, who narrowly lost his reelection bid in 2002 and intended to run again in 2006, has insistently alleged that Karl Rove, then a White House adviser, targeted him for prosecution to ensure he did not oust a Republican governor.
But on Oct. 11, OSC chief Scott J. Bloch ordered the case file be closed immediately, saying that he had not authorized it, seven career employees wrote in an internal draft memo made public last week.
"After concerns are expressed that OSC simply cannot close a file without conducting an investigation into theses [sic] allegations, the TF [task force] is directed to not further investigate this case and to wait for further instructions from the Special Counsel," the employees wrote in the document dated Jan. 18.
That episode and others detailed in the 13-page memo illustrate how the controversial Bush appointee, whom critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have accused of political bias and managerial misconduct, frequently has been at odds with top career staffers over which cases should be pursued by the principal office protecting federal whistle-blowers and policing partisan politicking in the federal workplace.
Bloch, whose office and home were raided by FBI agents Tuesday in connection with a probe of his activities, repeatedly has denied staffers' requests to investigate cases they believed deserved scrutiny, the memo shows. At the same time, Bloch has launched aggressive, politically charged investigations into executive branch agencies that career staffers considered either overly broad or largely unrelated to the office's jurisdiction.
The memo, addressed to Bloch, offers "deeply troubling new evidence of Bloch's misuse of his office," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO. The nonprofit watchdog group obtained the document and made it public last week on its Web site.
Bloch's critics say the memo provides new ammunition for their claim that he has used the agency's resources not to advance its mission but to insulate himself against removal. According to this view, Bloch has sought to ensure that any attempt to oust him would be seen as political retribution or an effort to obstruct his agency's investigations.
OSC spokesman James P. Mitchell said the memo is an early draft and merely reflects an exchange of information between Bloch and his staff. He declined to provide copies of the final draft or Bloch's response. "I think POGO has drawn out an inch of thread and is trying to weave a magic carpet," Mitchell said.
Mitchell sought to explain Bloch's decision to close some investigations, against the advice of career lawyers, by saying that the agency does not have the manpower to take on too many big investigations at once. "There's a resource implication here," he said. "That's likely one of the reasons that Bloch had them not do some things."
The memo was written by four attorney-investigators and three of their senior advisers, all of whom had been assigned by Bloch last year to pursue complex investigations. The staffers detail the status of the probes, including inquiries into White House-sponsored political briefings at 25 federal agencies, Rove's travel and political activities before the 2006 election, and the firings of nine U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department.
Among various concerns, the staffers said the office's probe of the political briefings was overly broad. They noted that Bloch had directed them to seek all e-mails sent or received by any White House Office of Political Affairs employee since Jan. 20, 2001, all Air Force One travel records between November 2003 and November 2004, travel records of high-level administration officials before an election, and numerous records of federal grant awards. They recommend narrowing the focus and completing key interviews before proceeding with the related probe into Rove's activities.
The memo also says the U.S. attorney firings probe found no evidence that the fired officials had been pressured to take actions meant to affect the 2006 election, the main issue over which the OSC has jurisdiction. The OSC staffers recommend suspending the probe until the Justice Department completed a related criminal investigation. When the Justice Department made such a request last May, Bloch said no.
The memo also addressed Bloch's demand for a new investigation into whether then-General Services Administration chief Lurita Alexis Doan had used agency resources to help GOP candidates. The authors said they had objected because the OSC concluded a similar investigation of Doan last year. In the memo, the staff "renews its recommendation that OSC close this case," the memo says. Doan was forced out by the White House last month.
In several other cases, the investigators wanted to open probes, but Bloch prevented them from doing so, according to the memo.
Last November, Bloch denied their request to look into a decision by Bradley J. Schlozman, formerly an acting U.S. attorney in Missouri, to seek indictments of four liberal activists for alleged voter registration fraud one week before the 2006 elections. Justice Department policy says prosecutors generally should refrain from such actions in the final stages of an election to avoid making the investigation a campaign issue.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the liberal group for whom the activists worked, had reported the alleged election fraud to authorities and was cooperating in the investigation. After Schlozman announced the indictments, the Missouri Republican party put out a news release attempting to link Democrats to the alleged wrongdoing.
"In view of the significant press coverage of these events, it could be perceived that the Office of Special Counsel was abdicating its responsibility to enforce the Hatch Act if we were to take no action in this matter," the OSC employees wrote in their memo. But Bloch has refused as recently as Nov. 14.
The career investigators also wrote of their long-standing desire to open a probe into allegations that certain Justice Department officials considered political affiliation in their hiring and promotion decisions. Bloch told them not to open one last August, then approved a limited investigation in November. In their memo, the staffers pushed for more.
"This document is just the most amazing thing I've ever seen," said Beverley Lumpkin, an investigator for POGO. "He creates a special task force to deal with these high-profile and complicated investigations, and then he doesn't listen to their advice."