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FBI agents raid special counsel's office

Computers and papers are seized as part of a federal investigation targeting agency chief Scott Bloch.

May 07, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Federal agents Tuesday swarmed the home and office of the Bush administration official responsible for protecting government whistle-blowers, part of an investigation into whether the official retaliated against his employees and obstructed justice.

More than a dozen agents participated in the daylong raid, temporarily shutting down the e-mail and computer systems of the Office of Special Counsel and confiscating several desktop computers, including that of Scott J. Bloch, the agency head. Bloch's home in suburban Virginia also was raided, and agents from the FBI and the Office of Inspector General for the White House Office of Personnel Management were seen carting off boxes of documents in unmarked government sedans.

The events made for another strange chapter in the government career of a conservative lawyer who seemed the perfect "loyal Bushie" but who ended up defying expectations as well as his administration bosses.

Bloch came to Washington from Kansas in 2001 and worked on the president's "faith-based" initiatives in the Justice Department. Because of his background in employment law, he was later recommended for the Office of Special Counsel. He brought notoriety to the government backwater by raising questions about the rights of gay and lesbian federal workers and alienating career staffers through a series of policy and personnel moves.

While administration figures began raising questions about his management, he opened high-profile investigations of prominent figures at the White House and Justice Department. Now, the process has come full circle, with the FBI -- an arm of the Justice Department -- investigating him.

"The Bush administration has been unable to make up its mind whether to ignore him or to act against him," said Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower advocacy group. "Mr. Bloch is finally being held accountable for the same cover-ups that he is supposed to be policing. It is a very positive step."

The FBI confirmed the raid, saying that agents Tuesday had "conducted a number of court-authorized federal search warrants" related to the Office of Special Counsel, but declined to elaborate.

Bloch has denied any wrongdoing. His office issued a brief statement about noon saying, "We are cooperating with law enforcement. We do not yet know what this is about. Meanwhile, we are continuing to perform the independent mission of this office."

The testimony of Bloch and other office employees is being sought by a federal grand jury.

Bloch, who grew up in Los Angeles as the son of a television writer, has run the independent Office of Special Counsel since 2004. The agency is charged with enforcing discrimination bans, whistle-blower protections and the Hatch Act, the 1939 statute that limits use of government resources for campaign purposes.

Since 2006, the Office of Personnel Management has been investigating allegations that Bloch retaliated against employees at the agency who disagreed with his views on subjects such as whether federal law prohibits discrimination based on sexual preference. The inquiry was launched after a group of current and former Office of Special Counsel workers filed a complaint alleging that Bloch had retaliated against them through intimidation and involuntary transfers.

The investigation gained traction late last year in the wake of a published report that he had hired a private computer repair firm, Geeks on Call, to clean his office computer. Bloch has told congressional investigators that he called the firm to eliminate a computer virus that was threatening the system. Critics have suggested he may have been purging the system of information of potential interest to investigators, a charge that he has strenuously denied.

Advocates for whistle-blowers said Tuesday they felt vindicated after years of raising questions about Bloch and his activities.

A week ago, a lawyer representing public interest organizations and employees of the Office of Special Counsel wrote to President Bush asking that Bloch be removed from office because of "his unbroken record of misconduct and malfeasance." The 17-page letter by attorney Debra S. Katz claimed that Bloch had launched high-profile inquiries against the administration to keep himself in the public spotlight and insulate himself from administration efforts to hold him accountable.

Bloch has been controversial since the day Bush appointed him to run the obscure office. He has put top presidential appointees in the glare of his investigations and infuriated government-watchdog and gay-rights groups.

In one of his first official acts, Bloch ordered his staff to remove references to the agency's jurisdiction over "sexual orientation discrimination" from the OSC website and publications. Complaints began to surface from employees that Bloch had used harassment and intimidation against those who balked at his initiatives.

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