The strange case of Scott Bloch
May 11, 2008
Since he took his job in January 2004 as one of the government’s top independent investigators, Special Counsel Scott Bloch has generated controversy — and enemies.
After last week’s unprecedented FBI raids on his office and home, many of those enemies are now calling for him to step down.
The raids, which seized computers and documents, were connected to a long-running Office of Personnel Management inspector general’s investigation into whether Bloch retaliated against employees in his office who disagreed with his management of the office.
Critics of Bloch say they think the FBI — along with inspector general agents — raided Bloch’s office and home because they suspect him of obstructing justice. Critics accuse him having his computer wiped clean of files that may support the claims of retaliation leveled against him. For his part, Bloch said he had his computer wiped clean because it was infected with a virus.
A grand jury looking into the allegations against Bloch, assembled by U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jeffrey Taylor, approved the May 6 raid and subpoenaed about 20 members of Bloch’s staff to testify.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called on Bloch to resign and asked committee chair Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to call Bloch in to testify before the committee.
OSC investigates alleged incidents of whistleblower retaliation, politicking by state and federal employees, discrimination against employees, and adverse employment actions taken against military reservists.
A controversial appointment
Almost immediately upon taking his job, Bloch started making enemies.
Within months, Bloch decided the Office of Special Counsel would no longer pursue discrimination cases based on an employee’s sexual orientation. Bloch argued the law is ambiguous on the matter, but gay rights groups said he was reversing long-held and accepted policy because of his personal views.
Several members of his office leaked Bloch’s decision to the press. Bloch allegedly retaliated, ordering those employees to relocate from Washington to a newly created Detroit office or lose their jobs. The allegations sparked outcry from whistleblower advocacy groups and prompted an investigation by the Office of Personnel Management inspector general’s office.
Bloch has denied the charges that he retaliated against employees. Jim Mitchell, communications director at OSC, says nobody was forced to relocate. “Some people just left OSC, thinking they were going to be sent to Detroit,” he said.
Critics of Bloch, which include Davis and various whistleblower groups, say Bloch appears to have obstructed the investigation into his alleged retaliation by having his laptop computer wiped clean in December 2006 by an outside computer repair firm, Geeks on Call. That incident has become part of the OPM IG probe: Investigators want to know if Bloch deleted documents relating to the alleged retaliation case, although they don’t know what might have been erased.
Bloch also made enemies within the administration and Republican Party by investigating numerous Bush administration figures. He investigated — and subsequently cleared — then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for possible Hatch Act violations in 2004. And last year, he investigated whether the chief of the General Services Administration, Lurita Doan, and top White House advisers Karl Rove and Scott Jennings violated the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from using their positions to advance a political party or candidate.
A draft copy of OSC’s investigation report that found GSA chief Lurita Doan violated the Hatch Act was leaked to the news media last year. Doan accused Bloch’s office of leaking it, a charge he denied.
Also last year, Bloch had his office look into allegations by former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias that he was illegally fired by top Justice Department officials in part because he spent time away from his job when he was activated as a Navy reservist. OSC is responsible for enforcing the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which prohibits adverse employment actions against military reservists.
`The Geeks incident’
Most observers said they think last week’s FBI raid and the ongoing grand jury investigation are linked to Bloch’s decision to hire Geeks On Call to erase the files on his laptop computer.
“These charges may be focused on the Geeks incident,” a source who has followed the investigation told Federal Times. “The OPM IG was doing its investigation, and Bloch was uncooperative, and it took a long time for [this raid] to come about. But because of Geeks, it looked like there were crimes.”
The OPM IG’s office declined to comment on the status of its investigation.
But officials within OSC describe the raid as “baffling,” because of the expansive scope of the subpoena, which also covered case files related to the Rove and Doan investigations.
“I don’t know what they’re looking for,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell says there are also questions about the Justice Department’s role in last week’s raid. “It’s a little strange for someone we’re investigating to come in and subpoena the investigator, ” he said in an interview, referring to OSC’s work on the Iglesias investigation. “Someone coming in from DOJ, requesting documents, that’s violating our independence. ”
Watchdog groups — who have been critical of Bloch for his handling of the OPM IG probe — say Mitchell has the story backward.
The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight says Bloch launched the Rove and Doan investigations to shield himself from being fired or investigated by the administration.
POGO is one of several watchdog groups listed as parties to the complaint filed by the OSC whistleblowers.
“Bloch will try to turn this investigation on its head, saying the White House is going after him,” said Avi Kumin, an attorney at Katz, Marshall and Banks, a firm that represents federal whistleblowers. “But OPM’s been investigating him for years … well before the Rove and Doan probes. Those were attempts to insulate himself politically. ”
OSC spokesman Mitchell disputes the charge that Bloch’s investigations into Bush administration figures were only attempts to protect himself.
“That’s absolute nonsense. We found Doan guilty of violating the Hatch Act,” Mitchell said. “She practically convicted herself [during testimony] on the Hill. … If we get a complaint, we investigate it.”
Several Bloch critics say the grand jury is probably considering obstruction of justice charges stemming from the computer incident. Bloch has admitted using more than $1,000 in public money to hire the company, but claims he had the computer cleared to erase a virus.
“They’ve never offered a theory about the computer files, or notified us that they were investigating the Geeks stuff,” Mitchell said, referring to the OPM IG’s office. “OPM never interviewed Scott about the computer.”
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee provided more details about that incident last week: Davis, a longtime Bloch critic, released a transcript of testimony Bloch gave the committee in March.
Committee staff told Federal Times the testimony’s release had nothing to do with the FBI raid — although they acknowledged the possibility that the grand jury was also considering perjury charges related to Bloch’s testimony.
During the two-hour interview, Bloch was repeatedly asked why he contracted with an outside firm, rather than using OSC’s in-house technology staff.
“I don’t want to be critical of my people,” Bloch told committee staff. “But there are issues there of, you know, on a scale of … one to 10 — 10 being, you know, Bill Gates — I don’t think I’m dealing with Bill Gates.”
Staffers also asked Bloch about a Wall Street Journal article that claimed Geeks on Call scrubbed computers belonging to two of his aides. Bloch claimed he had no knowledge of that work.
“If there was a virus on his computer, why was he scrubbing the computers of two top deputies?” said Kumin. “The testimony makes no sense, and it probably plays into their investigation. ”
According to Mitchell, the OPM IG’s office told OSC in January that it had finished collecting documents in connection with its probe.