WASHINGTON — Even as Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch moved forward with plans for a sweeping probe of the Bush administration, several advocacy groups complained that his ties to the administration and to conservative groups, as well as his record on gay rights and whistle-blowers, made him the wrong man for the job.
"There is a serious question as to whether Bloch will just provide cover for an administration that is covering for him," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a Democratic-leaning group.
A spokesman for the Office of Special Counsel, communications director James Mitchell, waved away the complaints, saying agency staffers have already begun to form an internal task force, led in part by career staff, to probe three broad areas of activity involving the White House and senior advisor Karl Rove.
The agency will use its subpoena power if necessary, Mitchell said. It will focus on whether White House political concerns improperly intruded on the decision to fire at least one U.S. attorney; whether Rove's office staff or others violated the Hatch Act in briefing Cabinet agency managers on political developments and Republican campaign goals; and whether the White House improperly used Republican National Committee e-mail accounts for official business.
Many of those e-mails are now missing, and Bloch has said his agency will probably join the effort to find them.
The advocacy groups charge, among other things, that Bloch initiated a policy that made it more difficult for gay employees to allege discrimination.
A whistle-blower group said Bloch had a poor record of protecting those reporting wrongdoing. And, these critics pointed out, the Office of Personnel Management is investigating alleged improper employment practices including intimidation of workers at the Special Counsel agency.
"This is a job where you don't have a lot of friends," Mitchell said. "You don't make people happy when you zap them for violations or reject their whistle-blower complaints." At Bloch's confirmation hearing, Mitchell said, the incoming director was urged to reduce the large backlog of whistle-blower and other complaints. Bloch disposed of a great many of them -- so many that an advocate for environmental whistle-blowers said they had received no satisfaction from the agency.
"He just ignored them," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Mitchell said office procedures on whistle-blower and other cases were reviewed by a bipartisan congressional staff in 2005 that later provided a positive report.
While Bloch has alienated advocacy groups on the left, he has also lost support from White House insiders, according to one report. The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, reported last year that Bloch was ostracized by the White House and might even be urged to step down.
Mitchell said such attacks are expected by investigators like Bloch. "He is a watchdog," Mitchell said. "That's what he likes to do."