The federal Office of Special Counsel, which is investigating whether political presentations given by White House officials to appointees at federal agencies violated the Hatch Act, may have advised White House officials before the presentations were given, according to Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The committee has been investigating White House political briefings after uncovering allegations that General Services Administration chief Lurita Doan hosted a political briefing for her top staff and urged them to take steps to help Republican candidates.
Special Counsel Scott Bloch issued a report on the GSA briefing in June, concluding that Doan engaged in “the most pernicious of political activity prohibited by the Hatch Act.”
In a letter sent to Bloch yesterday, Davis wrote that “sources familiar with contacts between White House staff and your office have told committee staff that lawyers from the White House Counsel’s office conferred with [OSC staff members]” who “provided advice regarding the content of White House political presentations.” Bloch has said no such contacts occurred.
Whistle-blower advocates who have been critical of the OSC said that if the office did advise the White House prior to the political presentations, it would suggest that the counsel’s office cannot investigate the propriety of the presentations.
Davis’ letter is part of an ongoing saga of charges and countercharges involving Bloch’s office.
The OSC is responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act and preventing agencies from punishing whistle-blowers, but Bloch has been accused of politicizing his office and retaliating against whistle-blowers who have complained about his management of the OSC.
Bloch issued his condemnation of Doan as the White House Office of Personnel Management was reportedly wrapping up its investigation of Bloch, in the wake of allegations that he violated the rights of his own employees. He was then attacked by Davis, who alleged that the OSC leaked the Doan investigation report to the news media.
“This conflict has degenerated into a cutthroat, incestuous backroom political fight, with each side investigating each other,” said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, which is representing the OSC staff members who allege they were mistreated by Bloch. Devine said the situation is reminiscent of the “mutual assured destruction” posture of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with each side threatening to drop a bomb on the other.
“Whether or not there is any merit in OSC’s investigation of the White House is yet to be determined,” Devine said. But Davis’ allegation that Bloch’s office knew about the political briefings in advance casts a deep shadow over his probe, Devine said. “If he gave them a go-ahead, how can he turn around and investigate them for something he cleared?” Devine asked.
Davis also rejected Bloch’s Aug. 31 response to the committee in which he refused to turn over information about his office’s contacts with the White House, arguing that such matters are confidential. Davis wrote that, “I know of no authority for the proposition that consultations between your office and the White House or other agencies may be withheld from Congress as ‘confidential.’” Bloch’s letter said he had conducted an internal review and found no evidence that his staff had communicated with the White House about the briefings.
Though Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) had joined Davis in the original request for information from Bloch’s office, he did not sign on to Davis’ follow-up letter Monday. A Democratic staffer said Waxman did not sign the letter because “we asked to talk to [Davis’] source, so that we could assess for ourselves, and they would not make the source available.”
Loren Smith, spokesman for the OSC, was unable to comment on Davis’ letter, saying that the office was still reviewing it.
Smith said the OSC has “staffed up for these new investigations” into the political briefings and a related Oversight Committee investigation into the misuse of e-mail accounts by White House officials, but that the office needs a budget increase to pay for them. According to Smith, the OSC is seeking a $2.8 million increase over the $16.4 million the White House has requested for the office in 2008 and has asked both Congress and the Office of Management and Budget to provide more resources to sustain the investigations.
The Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia is expected to begin the process of reauthorizing the OSC today, and panel members are likely to call for overhauling the office’s procedures to make them more transparent.