Probe, probed: Office of Special Counsel under attack

A government watchdog office, the Office of Special Counsel, is facing a deluge of questions from Capitol Hill Republicans over the legitimacy of a recent report that claims Bush administration officials systematically violated laws against political activity on the job. And now the OSC faces a House committee investigation of its investigation.

The OSC, which enforces federal workplace rules, said in a report last month that the White House Office of Political Affairs under former President George W. Bush violated the Hatch Act when it pushed political appointees to appear with GOP candidates before the 2006 election.

It also said the heads of 10 departments and agencies violated the Hatch Act, which limits political activity by federal employees, because they used Treasury funds to travel to appearances with congressional candidates at what OSC says were political events.

But Republicans are questioning the timing, objectivity and accuracy of the report. OSC released the report, which suggested eliminating the Office of Political Affairs, more than four years after the events examined, but just weeks after the Obama White House announced it would phase out its political office.

"I have requested an explanation for this long delay in making your work public," House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., referring to a prior inquiry, wrote in a January 27 letter to William Reukauf, the acting head of OSC. "You have ignored my request."

Issa asked Reukeuf to brief committee staff on the investigation and for all documents related to the report, lists of interviewees, and material on the origin of inquiry. Underlying the request, in part, are questions about the motives of the controversial former head of the office, Scott Bloch, who launched the investigation.

Bloch was at odds with the Bush White House when the probe began in 2007. Last Wednesday a judge indicated she planned to sentence him to a month in prison, after he pleaded guilty to contempt of Congress charges.

Issa, former Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., and others have accused Bloch of launching the investigation, which focused particularly on former Bush political aide Karl Rove, to curry favor with congressional Democrats and gain leverage against the White House.

Through a spokesman, Reukauf said OSC did not discuss timing of the report's release with the White House or "delay issuance of the report for any reason."

"The allegations are false. OSC did not give anyone, including the White House, advance copies of our report or advance notice of our findings," Reukauf said via OSC spokesman Darshan Sheth.

Sheth said it simply took the small agency a long time to conduct the investigation, which involved interviews of more than 80 people and reviews of 100,000 documents. "This is a big job for a small agency," he said.

Several officials criticized in the report say OSC officials misled them into cooperating by claiming the report would be a "forward-looking" review of the Office of Political Affairs and the Hatch Act that would not blame individuals. Two people interviewed by investigators also say OSC attorneys told them the report would be issued in early 2009.

Officials cited in the report said OSC does not dispute that they complied with legal guidance on the Hatch Act provided by White House or agency attorneys, but challenge the legal basis for that guidance. Officials said the report casts their actions as intentional violations of the law, not differences of interpretation.

In a statement, Scott Jennings, a former White House political official criticized in the report, called it a "partisan witch hunt."

Almost all of the officials faulted in the report are out of government and immune to the maximum punishment for Hatch Act violations, which is dismissal.

But one official whose travel was faulted in the report, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, is now a Republican senator from Nebraska, and is incensed over what he says are factual errors that are an indication of the overall slipshod quality of the report.

OSC faulted travel by Johanns to events with GOP candidates ahead of the 2006 election. It said several events just before the elections that the Agriculture Department concluded were official business and paid for with federal funds were clearly political and should have been funded by the campaigns.

One such event was a Johanns appearance with former Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to tout an expanded Forest Service facility in Albuquerque, N.M.

The report also cited instances where Agriculture deemed events political, such as an appearance by Johanns with then-Rep. Mark Kennedy in Minnesota- who was running for the Senate-where OSC said the agency violated the Hatch Act by failing to receive reimbursement.

Johanns said he and his staff have found that OSC had erred by writing that Agriculture had deemed an Arizona GOP reception Johanns attended as official business.

In fact, the department had called the event political and received reimbursement.

Johanns also quickly found a publicly available receipt indicating Kennedy's campaign had reimbursed the department.

"This leads me to question whether the Office of Special Counsel made any effort to confirm payment was made," Johanns wrote in a January 27 letter to Reukauf, one of two letters demanding a correction.

"You owe the public a full explanation of the inaccuracies and lack of thoroughness in the report, and I strongly suggest you waste no time in providing it," Johanns wrote.

In an interview, Johanns, who OSC did not contact before issuing the report, said he believed OSC officials "are in a panic. They've made very serious claims that are false."

"I think they are in very serious trouble," Johanns said. "I don't think you are allowed to make these kinds of unsubstantiated claims to the Congress and the president without consequences."

He said he was not sure what specific consequences OSC could face.

Steve Wymer, a Johanns spokesman, said OSC had informed the senator it would at least partly revise the report, but did not specify how.

Sheth said that OSC is reviewing Johanns's complaints and declined to comment further.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story misquoted former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. In addition, Bloch's sentence to one month in prison was not final as of last week.

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