Office of Special Counsel chief under fire for erasing computer files

Conflict of interest charges flew Wednesday after a report that Special Counsel Scott Bloch, whose office is investigating improper White House political activity, erased computer files that may affect a separate probe into his own conduct.

Bloch's Office of Special Counsel, which investigates violations of government personnel rules, gained attention last spring when he announced a probe into whether briefings on electoral politics -- given to appointees at most agencies by former White House political aide Karl Rove or his aides -- led to violations of the Hatch Act, which bars use of government resources for partisan politics.

But when he announced the probe, Bloch faced an investigation into whether he politicized his office and retaliated against whistleblowers who opposed his policies, among them how OSC processes whistleblower complaints. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general, who leads the two-and-one-half-year-old investigation into Bloch, has learned the special counsel used agency funds to pay a computer-help company for a so-called seven-level wipe of his computer and those of two former aides. The wipe can prevent experts from recovering data.

Ironically, one of the areas targeted by OSC's wide-ranging investigation is White House officials' heavy use of campaign e-mail accounts. The White House has said many of the e-mails, which congressional critics have charged may have been used to mask improper political activity, were accidently erased. OSC has said it needs a budget increase for the Hatch Act probe to cover expenses including computer forensics equipment for such tasks as searching computer hard drives for deleted files. An OSC spokesman said Wednesday that the agency's investigation is not now focused on e-mails.

Wednesday's newspaper report was seized on by a group of nonprofit whistleblower protection groups and an attorney representing employees who say Bloch retaliated against them. The groups have long charged that Bloch launched OSC's investigation of the White House to make it harder for President Bush to fire him. Because Bloch has a five-year term designed to ensure independence, he can be removed by the president only for malfeasance.

"Mr. Bloch continues to cling to his strategy of using his 'investigation' of the White House to insulate himself from his own misdeeds," wrote Debra Katz, the attorney for the OSC whistleblowers, in a letter to Bush calling for Bloch's firing. Katz previously accused Bloch of obstructing the OPM probe and asked the White House to demand its completion.

Bloch has said the OPM IG has a conflict of interest in its investigation because of Bloch's Hatch Act investigation. Katz cited that claim as evidence for her contention about his motivation.

"That Mr. Bloch -- caught red-handed destroying evidence and obstructing justice -- has now himself openly attacked the ability of the OPM IG to conduct an impartial investigation speaks volumes," she wrote.

Katz told CongressDaily that Bloch's erasing of computer files might cause the OPM IG to refer the case to the Justice Department due to a possible criminal violation. The OSC spokesman said Bloch contends that a virus had infected his computer and that no documents relevant to any investigation were affected by the erasure. The spokesman also emphasized that OSC has a mandate to investigation Hatch Act violations.

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