Late addition of funds boosts Special Counsel probe of White House briefings

The Office of Special Counsel will get some financial help for its investigation into charges of illegal politicking by White House officials after Congress added $1.1 million for the probe in the omnibus spending bill signed in December by President Bush.

OSC's eight-month-old inquiry has focused on briefings about Republican political strategy given by former White House political adviser Karl Rove and others to appointees at most federal agencies from 2001 to 2006. While the presentations may be legal, the investigation addresses whether by encouraging federal officials to award contracts or grants to targeted congressional districts, the briefings resulted in violations of the Hatch Act, which bars use of government resources for partisan politics.

The budget increase is less than OSC requested. It sought an additional $2.9 million for the probe, which began after OMB had set the agency's fiscal 2008 budget at $16.4 million. OMB did not grant OSC's request for a budget amendment and the House and Senate passed spending bills that did not alter the agency's budget. OSC spokesman James Mitchell said appropriators later contacted the agency about its needs for the investigation. Language increasing OSC's budget was quietly inserted into the bill during final negotiations in the final days before the Christmas recess. House and Senate appropriators did not respond to inquiries regarding who made the change.

The bill says the added funding will "assist OSC with computer forensics in connection with its special task force investigations." Along with more manpower, computer forensics is one of the areas for which the agency requested financial help for its inquiry. OSC has said it is reviewing whether White House staff used campaign e-mail accounts to mask improper political activity. Many of the e-mails were deleted, according to the White House.

Mitchell said the added money will "enhance our ability to continue our expanded Hatch Act investigation." Despite its specific designation, the money can likely be used for other aspects of the probe. OSC is interviewing federal officials based on material received from agencies, Mitchell said. The budget increase comes despite continuing criticism of OSC and the investigation. Three government watchdog groups in the fall asked Congress not to give the agency more money until a separate investigation of Special Counsel Scott Bloch, who heads OSC, is completed.

The Government Accountability Project, Project on Government Oversight and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility are parties to a complaint against Bloch charging he retaliated against whistleblowers in his office. That complaint led to a more than two-year-old investigation into Bloch by the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general. Because the OPM IG could recommend that Bush fire Bloch, the groups have argued OSC's Hatch Act investigation is a ploy to gain leverage against the White House.

The dueling investigations gained attention in November after reports that Bloch used a private computer company to erase from his office hard drive documents sought by investigators. Bloch is to be interviewed Wednesday about the file erasure by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staff.

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