Federal Agents Investigate Whistle-Blower Agency

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FBI agents raided a federal agency, the Office of the Special Counsel, amid allegations that the office has been misused for political purposes. Agents investigating possible obstruction of justice confiscated computers and also searched the home of Scott Bloch, the head of the OSC.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

At a key government agency in Washington, the investigator is now the investigated. His name is Scott Bloch. He's special counsel assigned to pursue whistleblower allegations. And then yesterday, FBI agents showed up at his office and at his home. They're exploring whether he abused his authority and politicized his office.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has more.

ARI SHAPIRO: It seemed like a normal day when people showed up for work. Then around 10:30, some unexpected visitors arrived. Jim Mitchell is the Office of Special Counsel's Communications director.

Mr. JIM MITCHELL (Director, Office of Special Counsel): About 20 agents of the FBI and investigators of the Office of Personnel Management Inspector General streamed into the office.

SHAPIRO: The agents had a search warrant that said obstruction of justice, according to sources. They escorted Special Counsel Scott Bloch from his office. At the same time, agents searched Bloch's northern Virginia home.

At 11:00 a.m., OSC employees got a message telling them to log off their computers because the server was shutting down. Everyone went offline, which left people with nothing to do but gossip.

Attorney Debra Katz represents a group of OSC employees with complaints against Bloch. She says her clients described the office as pandemonium.

Ms. DEBRA KATZ (Attorney): Obviously, it's very unsettling to begin the day and have the FBI show up and seize computer files and computers and documents. But I think that there has been a general concern from people in that office that Mr. Bloch has engaged in criminal misconduct, and he needs to answer for it.

SHAPIRO: Bloch's lawyers wouldn't comment.

The Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been investigating him for more than two years, but this was the first indication of FBI involvement in the case.

Sources say a Washington grand jury issued subpoenas yesterday. At least three ordered current OSC employees to testify before a grand jury.

OSC spokesman Jim Mitchell says agents spent all day at the special counsel's office.

Mr. MITCHELL: They left here in late afternoon with boxes full of files and materials and that they had taken from here.

SHAPIRO: officials in Texas and Washington told NPR there were search warrants for the OSC field office in Dallas, too. But spokesman Mitchell said there was no raid in Dallas.

Scott Bloch has been a controversial figure since he started as special counsel in 2004. Early on, he decided not to investigate claims by people who said they were fired for being gay. Then some of his colleagues accused him of retaliating against people who he considered enemies. The complaints accumulated. His critics said he hired personal and political allies and dismissed stacks of whistleblower complaints without reason.

In 2005, the White House asked the Office of Personnel Management to look into the allegations. As the investigation continued, Bloch hired the firm Geeks On Call to scrub his computer. He said it was to get rid of a virus and save evidence. But investigators suspect Bloch may have been trying to eliminate evidence.

Josh Berman used to work in the Justice Department's Public Integrity section, and now he's a defense lawyer. He says the government has lots of low-key, informal ways of getting information from a place like OSC. They could've asked for information or issued a subpoena for it.

Mr. JOSH BERMAN (Defense attorney): But when you show up with a large number of armed FBI agents at home, at multiple offices simultaneously, that's relatively heavy handed and sending a very strong message.

SHAPIRO: Berman says the message is that investigators were afraid documents would be destroyed if they used a lighter touch.

Bloch has not been charged with any crime. Still, attorney Katz describes yesterday's developments as long overdue.

Ms. KATZ: I am very glad to see that the FBI is taking these issues seriously, including obstruction of justice and destruction of documents. But the question now is, what is President Bush going to do?

SHAPIRO: For years, the country's major whistleblower groups have called on President Bush to fire Bloch. When asked whether the president has any reaction to yesterday's events, a White House spokesman said we are not commenting on that.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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FBI Raids Special Counsel Office, Seizes Records

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Scott Bloch has been special counsel since 2004. i

Scott Bloch has been special counsel since 2004. U.S. Office of Special Counsel hide caption

toggle caption U.S. Office of Special Counsel
Scott Bloch has been special counsel since 2004.

Scott Bloch has been special counsel since 2004.

U.S. Office of Special Counsel

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.

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. Bloch's home was also searched.

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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