Special counsel takes heat for personal e-mail use

Republican members of a House subcommittee on Thursday grilled the head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel over his handling of a recent Hatch Act investigation and his use of a personal e-mail account to discuss agency business.

At a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., unveiled a June 19 e-mail Special Counsel Scott Bloch sent using his personal account, alluding to recent testimony by Lurita Doan, the head of the General Services Administration.

Bloch's office last month sent a report to the White House concluding that Doan violated the Hatch Act, a law limiting political activity in government offices. The office recommended that President Bush discipline Doan "to the fullest extent" for the violation, as well as her failure to cooperate fully and honestly with OSC's investigation.

But before revealing the e-mail, Davis asked Bloch what he would do if he learned an agency official was offering personal commentary about agency business on a personal account during business hours.

The e-mail "is from your private AOL account, and it was sent to a number of folks, some of whom, by the way, were kind enough to forward to me," Davis said. "In the e-mail, you begin by making disparaging remarks about Lurita Doan. … Then you move on to some disparaging remarks about me and my colleague Mr. [John] Mica."

Exposure of the e-mail comes as federal labor unions and other employee groups have argued that Bloch's office has been overzealous in its investigations of federal workers based on e-mails, political jokes and other messages. "Historically, OSC has invoked the Hatch Act only in the most extreme circumstances, as the penalty phase is very severe," the American Federation of Government Employees stated in testimony submitted for the record. "Under Bloch, this is no longer the case."

Davis urged Bloch to produce all e-mails sent on his personal account since Jan. 26 in which he discussed anything related to the Hatch Act, a government official or a member of Congress. Jan. 26 is the date of a GSA meeting at the center of the allegations against Doan.

"It's not going to happen," Bloch said. "I believe these questions are inappropriate and are designed to suppress our investigations of the White House."

But witnesses at the hearing testified that Bloch's investigations are suspect, especially since he has been under investigation himself for two years for his alleged mistreatment of career employees.

"Mr. Bloch has politicized the office to such an extent that even OSC's good work is suspect," said Adam Miles, legislative representative for the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit group that supports government whistleblowers. "The special counsel's job is to protect the merit system -- period -- and not only when it suits the institutional and personal self interest of the special counsel."

The purpose of the hearing, called to discuss the reauthorization of OSC and the Merit Systems Protection Board, was overshadowed by the discussion of Bloch's leadership. But committee Democrats were interested in how legislation could improve the two bodies charged with protecting federal employee rights.

The board has proposed modifying civil service law by permitting any MSPB employee or administrative law judge to grant a motion for summary judgment to dismiss cases deemed to lack merit.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which submitted testimony for the record, strongly advised against granting such authority to MSPB, arguing that employees, many whom do not have experienced legal representation, would be highly vulnerable to the premature dismissal of claims.

"Dismissing cases without a full airing will not contribute either to justice or to the necessary perception by employees that they have had a full and fair opportunity to be heard, even if their claims are ultimately dismissed," NTEU stated.

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