Watchdog groups oppose more money for special counsel

Government watchdog groups are pushing key lawmakers not to provide extra funds next year to the Office of Special Counsel, which has said it needs more money to complete a high-profile investigation into improper politicking at federal agencies.

OSC should not receive an additional $2.9 million it requested from the Office of Management and Budget until a separate investigation of Special Counsel Scott Bloch is completed, officials from the Government Accountability Project, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Project on Government Oversight wrote in a letter Wednesday.

Bloch in April launched an investigation into whether PowerPoint briefings on electoral strategy given by White House political operatives to political appointees at agencies across government resulted in violations of the Hatch Act, which bars the use of federal resources for partisan politics.

OSC, which reviews federal whistleblower claims and allegations of improper personnel practices, is charged with investigating Hatch Act violations. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee started a similar probe.

OSC officials have said the broader Hatch Act investigation exceeds the means of the agency's 105 employees. The agency last spring asked OMB for a budget amendment boosting its fiscal 2008 budget from $16.4 million to $19.2 million so it could add investigators.

The watchdog groups have been vociferous critics of Bloch due to his decisions not to pursue cases by federal employees who say they suffered discrimination due to their sexual orientation and what they say is his failure to investigate enough whistleblower cases.

They argue the Hatch Act probe, which has made Bloch an adversary of the White House, is a ploy to win support from congressional Democrats. The Office of Personnel Management Inspector General for two years has been investigating allegations by former OSC employees who say Bloch retaliated against them for opposing his policies. A recommendation to discipline Bloch would require White House action.

"Mr. Bloch cannot be trusted with any investigation, much less a sensitive investigation of alleged Hatch Act violations by high-level political appointees," the groups wrote in the letter to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, and heads of other key oversight and legislative committees.

The groups charge Bloch with delaying the OPM investigation through tactics like telling his political staff to refuse to answer questions about his actions due to questionable claims of attorney-client privilege. In another letter, sent Tuesday to White House Counsel Fred Fielding, Deborah Katz, an attorney for the former OSC employees, demanded the OPM IG release an interim report on its investigation into Bloch.

Last month, an OSC spokesman said it appeared OMB would not grant the agency's request for more money. Though the House and the Senate Appropriations committees have already passed bills funding OSC at the same level requested by OMB, lawmakers including Lieberman have since indicated they would consider supporting efforts to add funds through an amendment to the Senate bill or in conference.

The spokesman had no comment on the recent letters.

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