Conspiracies Everywhere

Sometimes where there's smoke, there's just smoke.

In late April, President Bush's approval rating dropped to 28 percent in a Harris Interactive poll, the lowest in his presidency. When scandal-weary people are that dissatisfied with the guy who's running the government, they tend to see plots, conspiracies and conflicts of interest all around. But sometimes, where there's smoke, there's just smoke.

Such may very well be the case with the burgeoning story that emerged earlier this year about the investigation into political briefings conducted by Bush administration officials for their appointees at various agencies.

In case you somehow managed to miss it, this all started with a Jan. 26 meeting at the General Services Administration. During the session, GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan and about 40 other political appointees observed a PowerPoint presentation by Scott Jennings, a deputy to White House political strategist Karl Rove.

Six of the appointees later said at the end of the presentation Doan asked how GSA could help "our candidates in the next election." Doan has said she can't remember details of the meeting.

The revelations quickly led to complaints that Doan might have violated the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity in the federal workplace. And things only got hotter when the White House acknowledged conducting about 20 such briefings in various agencies.

In stepped the Office of Special Counsel, which is charged with investigating allegations of Hatch Act violations. First, the agency launched a probe of the GSA briefing and Doan's alleged statements. Then, OSC chief Scott J. Bloch, a Bush appointee, announced that the agency had opened an investigation into the White House itself. And it was an unusually public inquiry, with Bloch granting multiple interviews to major news outlets and turning up for a live appearance on C-SPAN to take questions from a nationwide audience.

That drew the attention of Americans across the political spectrum, many of whom previously had never heard of OSC. Some had a one-word reaction to this whole turn of events: "Whitewash!" Why? Because Bloch himself is the target of an investigation by the inspector general at the Office of Personnel Management. That probe came as a result of allegations that he had retaliated against OSC employees who disagreed with some of the positions he took early in his tenure.

"It's hard to believe that the Office of Special Counsel will be able to conduct a thorough investigation into the White House while Scott Bloch is under investigation himself," says Beth Daley, director of investigations at the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington watchdog group. "You have to wonder if the people's interest will outweigh one person's desire to protect his own skin."

But why assume that Bloch's situation will make it likely that he'll go easy on the White House? After all, he has reason to mistrust the administration. The investigation into his own actions was ordered up by Clay Johnson, Office of Management and Budget deputy director and longtime Bush associate. And the administration hasn't exactly stood by Bloch through his travails.

Both Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and syndicated columnist Robert Novak have reported that after Bloch came under scrutiny, the administration let it be known that it would be better if he resigned. (Asked on C-SPAN whether that was true, Bloch would only say, "I don't care to discuss that.")

So some Bush critics came up with another theory: Bloch had every intention of conducting a thorough inquiry, precisely to save his own skin -- or some other part of his anatomy. "How perfect would that be?" wrote Michelle Cottle in The New Republic. "I can think of few ironies more delicious than if the Bushies packed the government with partisan hacks who behaved so badly that at least one of them, in an effort to cover his own a**, wound up launching a probe of other partisan hacks."

So which of these scenarios is true? In all likelihood, neither. Most likely, OSC under Bloch's leadership is investigating both GSA and the White House because the agency received complaints about possible Hatch Act violations and it's OSC's job to investigate them. Bloch's own situation complicates that process, as does the fact that he seems to enjoy the limelight. But when the smoke clears, there probably will be less to this story than meets the eye.

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