Federal prosecutors on Thursday evening charged Scott Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel from 2004 through late 2008, with criminal contempt of Congress, a misdemeanor. The two-page charging document, known as an information filing, typically is a sign that a defendant plans to plead guilty.
If convicted, then Bloch would face a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. It is not clear, however, if the plea agreement would allow him to avoid prison. Bloch also could face a review by the American Bar Association disciplinary committee, which would determine whether or not to revoke his law license.
Prosecutors alleged that Bloch "unlawfully and willfully withheld pertinent information" about the deleted files from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staffers during a March 4, 2008, interview. According to the charging documents, Bloch failed to "state fully and completely the nature and extent of his instructions" to the computer repair firm Geeks on Call.
In December 2006, Bloch allegedly directed the company to scrub files from his office computer using a process known as a "seven-level wipe." In May 2008, the FBI raided Bloch's home and office, collecting documents and laptop computers and issuing 17 subpoenas.
Prosecutors claimed Thursday that files also were deleted in 2006 from the work computers of two other unnamed OSC political appointees.
Published reports indicate that Bloch told the committee during his interview that the data wipe was necessary to protect federal and personal information on the computer. But investigators have tried to prove that Bloch was attempting to destroy information related to another probe of charges that he retaliated illegally against whistleblowers in his office.
"The committee vigorously defends its constitutional role to conduct investigations," House Oversight Committee spokeswoman Jenny Rosenberg said. "We applaud the Justice Department for pursuing this case."
A whistleblower advocate said the charges against Bloch make it even more critical for President Obama to appoint a new special counsel.
"Although the track record of the OSC has been highly criticized over the past 30 years, having the former head of whistleblower enforcement charged with serious criminal misconduct highlights how OSC has been abused by politicians intent on having the foxes guard the chicken coop," said Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center.
Efforts to reach Bloch through the website for his legal defense fund were unsuccessful.
In a statement issued to Talking Points Memo, Bloch's attorney, William Sullivan of Winston & Strawn in Washington, said he was "pleased that this unnecessary five-year inquiry is over for Scott, and that it confirmed his commitment to public service, as well as the many accomplishments he achieved as [special counsel]. Now it is time for Scott to move forward and to pursue the best interests of his private clients with the same vigor he displayed in promoting the welfare of the citizens of the United States."
Since his confirmation as special counsel in 2004, Bloch -- a lawyer who previously worked on a Justice Department task force for faith-based initiatives -- was a lightning rod for controversy and generated opposition from government watchdog groups and lawmakers from both parties.
As head of OSC, Bloch angered gay rights groups by temporarily reversing his predecessor's policy of enforcing cases of alleged workplace discrimination against homosexuals. Several OSC employees who opposed that decision later sued, saying Bloch illegally retaliated against them.
Other employees complained he forced senior career staff to move from OSC's headquarters to a regional office in Detroit. Washington attorney Debra Katz, who represents those former OSC employees, said she was disappointed that the charges against Bloch only amounted to a misdemeanor. Justice had reportedly been seeking an obstruction of justice or perjury charge for the past several years.
But, Katz said she was hopeful that a separate investigation by the Office of Personnel Management inspector general will back the claims of her clients, some of whom were forced out of the agency and want to get their jobs back. Others are seeking compensation for lost wages, she said. The actual redress, however, would have to be negotiated with OSC.
"People have been harmed economically as a result of Bloch's bogus reorganization and attempt to send people to Detroit," she said.
In October 2005, the Office of Management and Budget directed the OPM inspector general, through an administrative agreement, to investigate the whistleblower complaints. That investigation, however, was suspended when the criminal proceedings against Bloch began.
A government official with knowledge of the investigation said the OPM inquiry could resume once the criminal proceedings are finished, despite the fact Bloch is no longer a federal employee. The source said the complainants have a legal right for the case to be resolved -- notwithstanding Bloch's status at OSC.
"This is not over yet," Katz said. "There is nothing in the criminal investigation to stop the OPM IG from issuing a scathing report."