Former Office of Special Counsel chief can withdraw guilty plea

Scott Bloch, the head of the government's independent whistleblower protection agency under President George W. Bush who admitted to criminal contempt of Congress, on Wednesday won the right to withdraw an earlier guilty plea.

Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that a federal magistrate judge who in March had sentenced Bloch to 30 days in jail had erred in not informing the defendant that he faced incarceration before he entered a guilty plea. Bloch later attempted to withdraw his plea and appealed to the district court.

In faulting the magistrate judge's ruling, Lamberth wrote: "The question here is not whether defendant was aware of the statute's provisions, but whether he understood that he faced one month of mandatory incarceration by pleading guilty. And as the record demonstrates, both defendant and the government believed that defendant could receive probation." [Emphasis is from the Judge's original.]

Scott Bloch ran OSC from 2004 through 2008, when he was ousted amid an investigation into allegations he misled Congress about using a computer repair firm to scrub files from his work computer. His tenure was beset with controversy over possible violations of the Hatch Act -- which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on the job -- and debates on whether he retaliated against whistleblowers and allowed his political views and moral objections to homosexuality to influence his pursuit of whistleblower complaints.

After Bloch's sudden firing, the office was run for more than two years by long-time OSC career official William Reukauf until the director's position was filled this April by Carolyn Lerner.

Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said the whistleblower community "wants Bloch in prison. We hope and expect the Justice Department will continue to prosecute and aggressively seek justice in this matter," he told Government Executive. "If they back down, it would be a travesty."

Joe Newman, director of communications for the Project on Government Oversight, says his group is not pushing for Bloch to go to jail, but "since he pled to an offence and indicated that he circumvented the rules, there should be some sort of punishment."

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