Possible probation in file-deleting case for Bush aide Scott Bloch draws criticism

By Spencer S. Hsu
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Watchdog groups are criticizing a possible probation sentence for the former head of a whistleblower protection office who withheld information from Congress about files that he ordered be erased from office computers.

Scott J. Bloch pleaded guilty in April to criminal contempt of Congress. His sentencing, originally set for Tuesday, was rescheduled for Friday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson in Washington. Bloch admitted withholding information from House investigators about having private technicians "scrub" computer files at the Office of Special Counsel in December 2006.

The files had been used by Bloch and other political appointees.

"Mr. Bloch, perhaps as well as anyone, should have known that the federal government cannot conduct proper investigations if witnesses intentionally and unlawfully withhold information pertinent to those investigations," Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Leon wrote the judge this month.

While the charge carries a sentence of up to six months in prison, prosecutors did not object to Bloch's request for probation, noting that he has no criminal history and faces a likely sanction on his ability to practice law. Bloch works at the Tarone & McLaughlin firm in Washington.

But groups that advocate ethics in government say the single charge "understates the true scope and impact" of Bloch's abuses.

Probation "would represent a miscarriage of justice," Debra Katz wrote in a sentencing statement for the judge. Katz represents the Government Accountability Project, which protects whistleblowers; Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility; the Project on Government Oversight; and several former employees of the Office of Special Counsel.

Bloch, who led the office through much of President George W. Bush's administration, gained notoriety for ordering the office to erase all references to workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation from its Internet site and printed materials. He said his office lacked the authority to protect gay and lesbian employees. He was removed from the office after a meeting with White House officials in October 2008.

Separately, the FBI launched an investigation of whether Bloch was trying to obstruct a Hatch Act inquiry into whether he mixed political and official activities. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform interviewed him in March 2008.

Bloch eventually admitted that he did not truthfully answer questions about his orders to a company called Geeks On Call to delete the files at the Office of Special Counsel, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency.

Steve Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, noted that the office has operated without permanent leadership since 2008 and that President Obama has left the position vacant despite a campaign promise.

"This office was designed to help every federal worker, but there's no one for federal workers to go to," Kohn said. "For federal employees, we're in a very dark era. . . . There's nobody policing the bureaucracies."

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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