Office of Special Counsel chief needs a lawyer

FBI agents conducted an “unprecedented” raid on the Office of Special Counsel and its head, Scott Bloch, yesterday afternoon. Investigators assured OSC employees that Bloch was the target of the raid as they carried out boxes of documents and shut down the computer network in the office while they reviewed computer hard drives. Bloch may have obstructed justice by having his system wiped by outside contractors:

Nearly two dozen federal agents yesterday raided the Washington headquarters of the agency that protects government whistle-blowers, as part of an intensifying criminal investigation of its leader, who is fighting allegations of improper political bias and obstruction of justice.

Agents fanned out yesterday morning in the agency’s building on M Street, where they sequestered Office of Special Counsel chief Scott J. Bloch for questioning, served grand-jury subpoenas on 17 employees and shut down access to computer networks in a search lasting more than five hours.

Bloch, who was nominated to his post by President Bush in 2003, is the principal official responsible for protecting federal employees from reprisals for complaints about waste and fraud. He also polices violations of Hatch Act prohibitions on political activities in federal offices.

Bloch has long been a target of criticism, some of it by his agency’s career officials, but the FBI‘s abrupt seizure of computers and records marked a substantial escalation of the executive branch’s probe of his conduct. Retired FBI agents and former prosecutors called the raid an unusual, if not unprecedented, intrusion on the work of a federal agency.

Agents from the Office of Personnel Management‘s inspector general’s office, who have been investigating Bloch for more than two years, visited his home on Stockade Drive in Alexandria yesterday. They left carrying boxes of files.

Bloch has survived other investigations, but none got as aggressive as this. The subpoena required data involving two earlier OSC investigations into Lurita Doan and Condoleezza Rice for improper travel for political purposes, which have to have costs covered by political campaigns. Both investigations have been closed by the OSC, and the FBI’s interest suggests that Bloch may have closed them improperly.

If so, the Bush administration has not acted with gratitude over it. The White House has demanded Bloch’s resignation on two separate occasions, according to Bloch himself. However, despite his status as a presidential appointee, Bloch cannot be fired except for cause; the OSC has job protections to keep personnel from undue political pressure. The hostility between the White House and Bloch doesn’t appear to indicate that the issue is that Bloch was too tough on Rice and Doan.

Bloch has received plenty of criticism for not pursuing other investigations and apparently for his treatment of his staff. The OSC would normally have been the place for federal whistleblowers to turn for protection, but what happens when the whistleblowes work for the OSC? At least according to the Washington Post, Bloch liked to waste money on items like $400 handtowels for his office bathroom, exactly the kind of waste that the OSC is supposed to uncover.

Most damning, though, was his move to wipe computer hard drives for himself and two aides by hiring Geeks on Call. Bloch says he was combating a virus infection and wanted to build better firewalls, but to the FBI, that looks like obstruction of justice. And if a virus had made its way into the network, why were those three hard drives the only ones affected?

Bloch may wind up getting fired after all, and now that may not be the worst of his troubles.