The FBI is investigating allegations of misconduct against Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, according to former employees and other sources, indicating that a long administrative probe has widened to include the possibility of criminal wrongdoing.
The FBI is looking into claims that the former White House lawyer and aides violated federal law by accessing e-mail accounts of agency employees, several former staffers told CongressDaily. A grand jury has been empaneled in Virginia, as part of the probe, the sources said.
Among the employees whose e-mail accounts were allegedly accessed is former Ambassador Robin Raphel, a respected career diplomat who worked as a deputy to Bowen until early this year.
Denise Burgess, a former spokeswoman for the special inspector general's office who has filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also has been interviewed by FBI agents, former co-workers said.
In an interview Thursday, Bowen said neither he nor anyone in his office has been notified they are targets of an investigation. He said he is legally prohibited from confirming the existence of an investigation, but he denied wrongdoing.
"I am confident that this is going to amount to nothing," he said.
Bowen also acknowledged the investigation has become a drag on the organization. "It takes up time and money that should be spent on Iraq oversight," he said.
A spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office also would not comment on the probe. But four individuals independently confirmed the FBI's role.
Since last spring, Bowen's office has been the target of an investigation initiated by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, an organization of inspectors general and other senior oversight officials appointed by President Bush.
That probe has focused on three charges: that Bowen's top deputy, Ginger Cruz, signed off on an exaggerated estimate of savings generated by the agency in documents sent to OMB; that the agency improperly paid $200,000 to Deloitte Consulting for work that was outside the scope of the company's contract; and that Bowen wasted resources on a project to complete a book about Iraqi reconstruction.
Under a PCIE practice of using unrelated inspectors general to lead investigations of fellow IGs, this probe has been conducted by investigators in the Social Security Administration's inspector general's office.
A PCIE spokesman would not comment on the FBI's role in the Bowen investigation, but said the FBI generally enters an active probe by the inspectors general whenever information arises that suggests crimes have been committed.
The probe began after about six anonymous former Bowen staffers filed a complaint in early 2006 detailing more than 20 professional and personal allegations against him and Cruz. The Social Security investigators ultimately declined to pursue many of those charges, employees in Bowen's office said.
The e-mail allegations arose this year, according to former employees. They pointed, in particular, to Raphel. Ex-colleagues also pointed to Patrick McKenna, a former criminal investigator whom they believe was fired in 2005 after criticizing Bowen in e-mails to Justice Department agents.
A senior Bowen aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the case, noted that government agencies have broad rights to review staff e-mails. The official declined to discuss "the specifics of any administrative investigation to look at e-mail," but pointed to the office's written policy on e-mail use.
That policy says that by using agency e-mail, employees "imply their consent to disclosing the contents of any files or information passed through government office equipment."
But open-ended reviews in search of negative information might violate federal electronic communications laws, said Debra Katz, a partner at Washington-based Katz, Marshall and Banks LLP, which focuses on federal employment law. And it is rarely permissible to use information found in an open-ended search to retaliate against employees, experts said.
"They can't do it for peccadillos, like whether or not [someone] is meeting their girlfriend for lunch," said a former agency employee, who suspects e-mails were reviewed. "That's probably what they [FBI agents] are looking at."
In recent interviews, the senior Bowen aide and two other employees familiar with parts of the FBI investigation suggested it is politically motivated. These employees cited the role played by employees who left the agency under unfavorable circumstances, though officials conceded Raphel was not forced out.
Because the special inspector general's office is a temporary organization, Bowen and his deputies face few of the personnel rules governing most federal agencies that limit the grounds for firing employees. Agency officials acknowledged that their office has often used its broader authority to dismiss its employees.
Four former special inspector general's office employees and another official said they have been told a grand jury issued a series of subpoenas to Bowen's office last month.
Justice Department officials would not confirm or deny the existence of a grand jury and recipients of grand jury subpoenas cannot legally confirm the existence of the grand jury probe or the subpoena.
The senior Bowen aide said that neither FBI involvement in the investigation nor the existence of a grand jury indicates any wrongdoing, noting that grand juries are often used in a "data gathering process."
The official said that in 2006, the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia reviewed some of the allegations of malfeasance made in the original complaint by ex-employees to the PCIE, but declined to pursue criminal charges.
Asked if the current investigation will end similarly, the senior official predicted it would.
"Absolutely," the official said.