Office of Special Counsel sees progress in Hatch Act probe

The Office of Special Counsel is pushing ahead with its investigation of suspected Hatch Act violations involving White House political operatives, despite new criticism of Special Counsel Scott Bloch and his probe.

An OSC Hatch Act team is reviewing thousands of documents received from agencies and has begun interviewing officials at smaller agencies, among them the Office of National Drug Control Policy, an OSC spokesman said. In July, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is conducting a separate investigation, released documents indicating top agency officials traveled around the country at taxpayer expense to make appearances with vulnerable Republican congressional candidates.

The White House and the Drug Control Policy office have said the officials were there to talk about drug programs, not politics.

After the disclosure in March that a White House official gave a PowerPoint briefing on Republican plans for the 2008 congressional elections to appointees at the General Services Administration, Bloch announced OSC had launched a probe of the presentations, which was later disclosed to have been given to appointees at most large agencies.

The OSC is charged enforcing the Hatch Act's ban on partisan politics by federal employees. Though it is doubtful the briefings themselves violated the act, the investigation will likely focus on whether the presentations spurred actions by federal officials to help Republican candidates, through such steps as awarding contracts or grants in targeted congressional districts, according to Hatch Act experts. Explicit discussions by White House or agency officials about partisan political activity may have been illegal.

Since it began, OSC's investigation -- and Bloch's role in it -- has been criticized by nonprofit whistleblower rights groups aligned against Bloch. Since 2005, the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been looking into whether Bloch dismissed whistleblower cases without enough examination and retaliated against employees who opposed his policies. That investigation ultimately could lead to a recommendation that President Bush remove Bloch.

Debra Katz, an attorney who represents some of the OSC employees, accused Bloch of using the Hatch Act investigation to inoculate himself from possible firing by the White House, a charge Bloch adamantly rejects.

Controversy over Bloch gained renewed attention last week amid the disclosure that investigators found he had hired a computer service last winter to erase his computer's hard drive, potentially erasing files relevant to the investigation.

Bloch said the files were not relevant and that he hired the company due to a computer virus. He added that because of the ongoing Hatch Act probe, the OPM IG has a conflict of interest in its investigation of him. Bloch has declined to recuse himself from OSC's investigation, though he is not involved in its day-to-day activity.

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