Wednesday, May 7, 2008

FBI Searches Office of Special Counsel Building

FBI Searches Office of Special Counsel Building

By Ari Shapiro

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FBI agents on Tuesday raided the offices of Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch, who oversees protection for federal whistle-blowers. The agents seized computers and shut down e-mail service as part of an obstruction of justice probe, as first reported by NPR News.

FBI agents also searched Bloch's home and a Special Counsel field office in Dallas. A grand jury in Washington issued subpoenas for several OSC employees, including Bloch, according to NPR sources who spoke on condition their names not be used.

Those developments came about on a Tuesday morning that had seemed no different from any other weekday in the Washington headquarters of the Office of Special Counsel. But at 10 a.m., the OSC's national e-mail system went down, and the FBI arrived.

A half-dozen FBI agents swarmed into the OSC's Washington offices, grabbing documents and seizing computers. By 1 p.m., more than 20 agents had arrived in the agency's D.C. bureau.

One official close to the investigation said that today's action was "significant" and that other field offices would also be included in the investigation.

The focus of the probe appears to be Special Counsel Bloch, who was appointed by President Bush in 2004. Bloch has been a controversial figure ever since taking over the Office of Special Counsel, which, among other things, ensures that federal whistle-blowers get the protection they need.

One of Bloch's first official actions was to refuse to investigate any claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation. When the news of his refusal was leaked to the press, career employees in his office say, Bloch blamed them for the leak. He retaliated, the employees said, by creating a new field office in Detroit and forcing them either to accept assignments there or resign.

This morning, FBI agents in Washington took Bloch into a separate room at OSC to interview him, while additional investigators searched his office. They also arrived at his home in Alexandria, Va., with a search warrant.

The Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been looking into allegations that Bloch retaliated against career employees and obstructed an investigation. Sources close to the probe said the FBI's raid this morning was related to work the inspector general had already done.

In addition to concerns about obstruction of justice, investigators are also looking into whether Bloch violated the Hatch Act, a congressional mandate that prohibits employees from using their offices for partisan political purposes.

Bloch has admitted to hiring Geeks on Call - a computer servicing company - to purge his computer and two of his deputies' computers, sources said. But he said the computers contained a virus, which necessitated a purge. Investigators are looking into whether the purge was meant to destroy evidence related to the current investigation.

OSC employees for months have called on President Bush to ask for Bloch's resignation. The White House today declined to comment on the developments, as did Bloch's lawyers and the FBI.

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