Karl Rove's Least Likely Interrogator: Scott Bloch and the Office of Special Counsel

The controversial director of the OSC is launching the most high-profile (and politically fraught) investigation of his stormy, three-year tenure. Is it a courageous effort to expose White House malfeasance, or a last ditch attempt to save his own hide?

He's been accused of rolling back protections for federal workers who face sexual-orientation discrimination; installing staffers in key posts who share his religious-conservative worldview; wielding his prosecutorial power for partisan purposes; and turning his agency into a "black hole" for whistleblower disclosures and complaints of reprisal. Welcome to Scott Bloch's stormy, three-year tenure at the helm of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the federal government's obscure whistleblower-protection agency, which is also in charge of policing whether federal employees are engaging in political activity on the job.

Though he's long been in the crosshairs of watchdog groups and watched closely by Congress, Bloch may have just picked the biggest fight of his tenure—and it's not the one anyone expected him to take on. In a move that has shocked even his own staffers, Bloch is gearing up for a large-scale investigation into the administration's political operation, zeroing in on the man who has turned that operation into a veritable satellite office of the Republican National Committee: Karl Rove.

OSC will also probe the disappearance of an untold number of emails that were sent by White House officials using nongovernmental, RNC-issued email addresses and the circumstances behind the firing of at least one U.S. Attorney, New Mexico's David Iglesias. "I've never seen this done before," an OSC investigator told me today, referring to the scale of the investigation. "I think this is a first." He told me, however, that questions remain about whether the agency has the "legal authority to look to the depth that he says we're going to look. I haven't a clue whether we do or not. But I'm sure that will be tested."

In an ironic twist, Bloch is the first OSC chief to face a whistleblower complaint of his own, one filed by a group of career OSC staffers who allege, among other things, that he engaged in the very retaliatory practices his agency is charged with investigating. In connection with this, Bloch has been the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general that has been in the works for well over a year. Judging from my conversations with current and former OSC employees, OPM investigators are likely getting an earful. "Everybody that I talk to is incredibly unhappy and just waiting until [Bloch] heads out," one senior OSC staffer told me not long ago. "Everyone has the same feeling that he's just destroyed the agency."

Despite the controversy that has surrounded Bloch during his time at OSC, it's possible the hallmark of his tenure could be the high-stakes case he's currently pursuing—an investigation that may have been prompted, in part, by Iglesias. One of eight U.S. Attorneys forced out by the Justice Department under dubious circumstances, he filed two separate complaints with the office in early April, one of them alleging violations of the Hatch Act—a law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity on the job—by administration officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, Gonzales' former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, and Monica Goodling, once the Justice Department's White House liaison.

Goodling stepped down from her post in April as the controversy over the prosecutor firings reached a boil, promptly invoking her Fifth Amendment right to avoid testifying before Congress. The House Judiciary Committee today announced that it is issuing a subpoena and will grant her immunity in exchange for her testimony. (The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is considering authorizing a subpoena for Rove deputy Sara Taylor.)

Iglesias himself thinks Goodling's testimony is key to determining the potential role of the White House in the prosecutor firings. "I think Monica Goodling holds the keys to the kingdom," he told Chris Matthews on Hardball last night. "I think if they get her to testify under oath, with a transcript, and have her describe the process between the information flow between the White House counsel, the White House and the Justice Department, I believe the picture becomes a lot clearer."

It appears that the OSC's probe will go well beyond the prosecutor firings, delving into the broader issue of the politicization of federal agencies at the hands of the White House. Among the things OSC investigators will be looking into is a PowerPoint presentation delivered to political appointees at the General Services Administration (GSA) in January by Rove deputy J. Scott Jennings. The 28-page presentation recapped the results of the 2006 election and identified vulnerable seats the GOP is targeting. After the presentation, GSA head Lurita Doan reportedly asked her staff to consider how they could "help 'our candidates' in the next elections." (Yesterday, two Democratic senators called on her to resign.) "I really think something inappropriate took place with the GSA administrator and some high level folks there," the OSC investigator said. "And it sounds like this might have happened at other agencies."

Though the OSC's investigation has the potential to expose a trifecta of political subterfuge (the missing White House emails, the fired U.S. Attorneys, and the extent to which the tentacles of the administration's political machine have infiltrated the federal bureaucracy), Washington-based watchdog groups are already crying foul. They are not opposed to a thorough investigation of the matters at hand, but rather to Bloch's role in it.

"It's hard to believe that the Office of Special Counsel will be able to conduct a thorough investigation into the White House while Scott Bloch is under investigation himself," the Project on Government Oversight's director of investigations, Beth Daley, said in a release yesterday. "You have to wonder if the people's interest will outweigh one person's desire to protect his own skin."

Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, questions whether, under Bloch's direction, the investigation would amount to a whitewash. "Having transformed the OSC into a virtual black hole for legitimate complaints of retaliation, Bloch is decidedly not the right person to tackle the issues of misconduct and illegality that surround top White House officials," she said yesterday. "There is a serious question as to whether Bloch will just provide cover for an administration that has been covering for him."

But this overstates Bloch's coziness with the White House, for whatever relationship he's had with the president who appointed him began to cool some time ago. Early in his tenure, Bloch's attempt to launch a legal review of a statute protecting federal workers from retaliation based on their sexual orientation forced the White House to step in, issuing a rare statement reaffirming that "long standing federal policy prohibits discrimination against federal employees based on sexual orientation."

"President Bush," the statement continued, "expects federal agencies to enforce this policy and to ensure that all federal employees are protected from unfair discrimination at work." Reportedly, the White House has asked Bloch at least once to tender his resignation, a fact that the special counsel would neither confirm nor deny when I spoke with him this winter. By antagonizing his bosses now, Bloch is "committing suicide, except for the real, real, real conservative right, who I'm sure are applauding him," the OSC investigator told me. "Outside of that, he's really going to be ticking off some people."

There is speculation, the investigator said, that Bloch is pursuing the Rove case to show his bona fides—"to provide some protection" for himself, given that an attempt to oust him from OSC now would look like a vendetta. "There's definitely one part of me that thinks it's great that we're taking some initiative to see how politicized the federal employment system has become under this president," he said. "Part of me applauds this. I wish I could take Scott seriously and trust him, but everything he's done at this agency shows that he's untrustworthy and that his motives are suspect. I don't know why we should trust him now. I hope we can, but I really don't."

"This," he added, "is going to be interesting."