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Inquiry into White House operations going forward

April 27, 2007|Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch met with White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding on Thursday as he pushed ahead with an ambitious inquiry into White House political operations.

"I came away believing that the White House intends to cooperate and was glad to open channels of communication," said Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel.

Bloch said he and Fielding set up procedures that his agency would use to investigate the firing of at least one U.S. attorney, missing White House e-mails and the distribution of political information to Cabinet agencies.

Bloch's office, with 106 employees, enforces laws to protect federal whistle-blowers and prevent discrimination.

It also enforces the Hatch Act, which generally prohibits the use of federal resources for campaign purposes and protects civil servants from political coercion.

Bloch, who was appointed by President Bush, has a lot of critics. He has been at odds with liberal groups and advocates for whistle-blowers and gay rights -- and with some White House officials.

Activist groups have called for Bloch to step down, saying he is under investigation by the Bush administration. He is accused of intimidating agency employees and discriminating against gays and lesbians. He also faces criticism for his record on enforcing the whistle-blower law.

"What we have here is a mutual investigation society," said Beth Daley of the Project on Government Oversight, which monitors government contracts and other activities. "Scott Bloch cannot possibly investigate the White House while it is investigating him."

Bloch, who previously worked at the Justice Department on a faith-based initiative task force, rejected that line of thinking. He said the two-year investigation of him was without merit and had nothing to do with the Hatch Act inquiry that he was pursuing.

He said the investigation of the White House political operation would be led by James M. Byrne, a lawyer in his office.

He said Byrne was setting up a task force to handle the investigation.

While Bloch and Fielding met, another Office of Special Counsel official, James Mitchell, went to Capitol Hill to meet with aides on the congressional oversight and appropriations committees. They discussed the investigation, and Mitchell provided "a heads up" that the inquiry might trigger a request for more funding.

Bloch recently opened an investigation into the firing of U.S. Atty. David C. Iglesias of New Mexico to see whether electoral considerations had played a role. The agency may expand its investigation to the firings of other U.S. attorneys.

Bloch's office also has been investigating a PowerPoint presentation given by J. Scott Jennings, deputy political director at the White House, to General Services Administration political appointees.

At the January event, Jennings discussed the election landscape going into 2008 with GSA managers from across the country.

Six witnesses told congressional investigators that after the presentation, GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan asked how the agency could help "our candidates."

Doan told a congressional hearing that she did not remember details of the meeting.

Similar meetings were conducted by White House officials at every federal agency except the Justice Department and the Defense Department since Bush has been in office.

The president's top aide, Karl Rove, conducted some of the briefings at Cabinet agencies, telling employees at one presentation in early 2002 about what upcoming political races were important. He also highlighted issues in the agencies that could affect the races.

Other briefings in the first term were provided by Ken Mehlman, who would later become chairman of the Republican National Committee.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino defended the briefings Thursday.

"There is nothing wrong with political appointees providing other political appointees with an informational briefing about the political landscape in which they are working," she said.

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

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