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Bush appointee turns the spotlight inward

Prosecutor Scott Bloch, a devoted conservative, unsettles the GOP with his White House probe.

May 01, 2007|Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — At first glance, Scott J. Bloch seems to fit the profile of the "loyal Bushie," the kind of person the White House salted through the Washington bureaucracy to make sure federal agencies heeded administration priorities.

But Bloch, 48, is a man who defies expectations.

The lifelong Republican runs an agency -- the Office of Special Counsel -- that is turning its investigative spotlight on the White House, in particular the political operation headed by Karl Rove.

His office is investigating whether Bush administration personnel violated civil statutes by inserting GOP electoral politics into Cabinet agency meetings, firing at least one U.S. attorney, and discussing some of the activities in private e-mails that are missing.

When Bloch was recommended for the post by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), few imagined his tenure would turn controversial among Bush Republicans. Although Bloch is a committed conservative, he says -- displaying his Office of Special Counsel badge with a dash of drama -- "I am a prosecutor."

Bloch says he felt compelled to initiate the broad investigation after reviewing results from two seemingly separate inquiries.

The first was a preliminary interview with the fired U.S. attorney from New Mexico, David C. Iglesias, who said, among other things, that his termination might have resulted from his failure to swiftly pursue a corruption case against Democrats.

The second involved a PowerPoint presentation highlighting upcoming battleground election races that a Rove aide, J. Scott Jennings, made at the General Services Administration this year.

"We are the ones who draw the line at putting the people's business into a political machine," Bloch said in an interview last week. "I consider myself a very tough cop because I consider enforcement of the Hatch Act, which is what we do, an effort to keep government clean and accountable."

Most alarming for the White House is that if the inquiry proceeds as Bloch outlines it, his agency will focus on political strategist Rove's broad effort to harness the federal bureaucracy in service of Republican goals. Even if the investigation does not result in criminal charges, the process of discovery could expose the inner workings of the White House political operation.

Bloch has demonstrated a willingness to go after Rove, at least on the small stuff: The Times has learned that Bloch investigated complaints that Rove's politically related travel had been improperly billed to the government. Bloch's action resulted in a reimbursement to the Treasury Department for what some described as a bookkeeping error.

There is some skepticism about whether a Republican appointee can really investigate the White House, and some have called for the inquiry to be taken out of Bloch's purview.

Critics say Bloch has been soft on Republicans in the past, issuing warning letters instead of taking a hard line in some high-profile cases. They also say that Bloch's investigation is compromised because internal complaints about his management of the Office of Special Counsel have led to a probe by the Office of Personnel Management -- putting him in the awkward position of investigating an administration that is investigating him.

"This should be viewed in the context of Bloch's past history, which is one filled with allegations of politicization, reprisal and efforts to use the agency to promote pet causes," said Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer. Katz has filed a lawsuit on behalf of former Bloch employees who allege, among other things, that Bloch stifled dissent as he pushed aside longtime employees and hired friends and political allies.

Bloch disputes the complaints, and the Democratic chairmen of congressional oversight committees provided statements last week expressing general support for his agency's investigation.

But there is no denying that since he was appointed by President Bush to run the obscure Office of Special Counsel in early 2004, he has proved controversial, infuriating government-watchdog and gay rights groups and annoying the White House in the process.

A deeply religious conservative, Bloch came to Washington from Kansas in 2001 through connections to then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and worked on the president's faith-based initiatives in the Justice Department.

He was born in New York City, the son of a television scriptwriter. The family moved west from Brooklyn when Bloch was 3, and he grew up in Los Angeles while his father penned scripts for hit shows including "The Flintstones," "The Jetsons," "Gilligan's Island," "Gunsmoke" and the "The Mod Squad."

His father was a Republican, and as a boy Bloch worked for Ronald Reagan's his first gubernatorial bid.

Bloch surprised his family after graduating from William Howard Taft High School in Woodland Hills by opting for the University of Kansas instead of UCLA or UC Berkeley.

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