Watchdog agency seeks extra funds for Hatch Act probe

The Office of Special Counsel expects the Office of Management and Budget to deny a request for extra funds next year, a decision the small agency said could hinder its high-profile investigation into improper politicking at federal agencies.

As a result, OSC is now responding to congressional inquiries about its request for $3 million more for its fiscal 2008 budget. Special Counsel Scott Bloch in April announced an investigation into whether electoral strategy briefings given by White House political operatives to senior officials across the federal government violated the Hatch Act, which bars using federal resources for partisan politics. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee launched a similar probe.

The office says its investigation exceeds the means of its 105 employees. In the spring, the agency asked OMB for a budget amendment that would boost its fiscal 2008 appropriation from $16.4 to $19.2 million so it could add investigators. OMB is still formally considering the request.

OSC spokesman James Mitchell said with no response yet, "we're worried that no action is going to be taken to support our request. And [that] could hurt our ability to plan the continuation of our investigation."

The shortfall could raise charges that the administration is withholding funds because the probe might implicate White House figures. Mitchell would not speculate on OMB's rationale, but he said "not knowing certainly inhibits what we can do."

An OMB spokesman dismissed assertions linking the funding decision to the investigation's targets. He said the budget amendment request remains under review, but suggested the issue should "be addressed by Congress."

The House has already passed a bill funding OSC at the same level requested by the Bush administration, as has the Senate Appropriations Committee. In committee reports accompanying the bills, House and Senate appropriators included similar language encouraging OSC to work with OMB to obtain needed funds for the sweeping Hatch Act investigation.

"The Committee ... is concerned about the effect that recently initiated investigations may have on the OSC's resources," House appropriators said in their report. "The Committee urges [that] OSC ... if additional funds are necessary to conduct these investigations, pursue with the Office of Management and Budget a budget amendment."

Anticipating a negative response from OMB, Bloch's agency has had discussions with congressional aides. Congress could add extra funds through an amendment to the Senate bill or a final conference version of the measure.

Mitchell said the funds would pay for seven to nine investigators to replace employees already moved to a special Hatch Act unit. The money could also fund computer forensics work such as searching hard drives for content like deleted e-mails.

"We couldn't turn around and absorb these costs without eating into muscle ... without essentially having to get rid of people," he said. "This is an expansion of what we normally do. It has resource implications."

There is no guarantee Congress will give OSC the extra funding. House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., said in a statement that OSC needs "sufficient resources." But, a Serrano spokesman said, "This would have to go through a whole series of hoops to happen any other way than what the report language requires."

OSC also faces hostility from Republicans who argue Bloch is using the probe to curry favor with Democrats eager to go after the White House. House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Tom Davis, R-Va., has attempted to cut OSC's budget and could try again when the committee considers the agency's reauthorization this month.

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