Head of Rove Inquiry in Hot Seat Himself
Washington Post/WSJ
November 28, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The head of the federal agency investigating Karl Rove's White House political operation is facing allegations that he improperly deleted computer files during another probe, using a private computer-help company, Geeks on Call.

Scott Bloch runs the Office of Special Counsel, an agency charged with protecting government whistleblowers and enforcing a ban on federal employees engaging in partisan political activity. Mr. Bloch's agency is looking into whether Mr. Rove and other White House officials used government agencies to help re-elect Republicans in 2006.

At the same time, Mr. Bloch has himself been under investigation since 2005. At the direction of the White House, the federal Office of Personnel Management's inspector general is looking into claims that Mr. Bloch improperly retaliated against employees and dismissed whistleblower cases without adequate examination.

Recently, investigators learned that Mr. Bloch erased all the files on his office personal computer late last year. They are now trying to determine whether the deletions were improper or part of a cover-up, lawyers close to the case said.

Bypassing his agency's computer technicians, Mr. Bloch phoned 1-800-905-GEEKS for Geeks on Call, the mobile PC-help service. It dispatched a technician in one of its signature PT Cruiser wagons. In an interview, the 49-year-old former labor-law litigator from Lawrence, Kan., confirmed that he contacted Geeks on Call but said he was trying to eradicate a virus that had seized control of his computer.

Mr. Bloch said no documents relevant to any investigation were affected. He also says the employee claims against him are unwarranted. Mr. Bloch believes the White House may have a conflict of interest in pressing the inquiry into his conduct while his office investigates the White House political operation. Concerned about possible damage to his reputation, he cites a Washington saying, "You're innocent until investigated."

Clay Johnson, the White House official overseeing the Office of Personnel Management's inquiry into Mr. Bloch, declined to comment. Depending on circumstances, erasing files or destroying evidence in a federal investigation can be considered obstruction of justice.

Mr. Bloch had his computer's hard disk completely cleansed using a "seven-level" wipe: a thorough scrubbing that conforms to Defense Department data-security standards. The process makes it nearly impossible for forensics experts to restore the data later. He also directed Geeks on Call to erase laptop computers that had been used by his two top political deputies, who had recently left the agency.

Geeks on Call visited Mr. Bloch's government office in a nondescript office building on M Street in Washington twice, on Dec. 18 and Dec. 21, 2006, according to a receipt reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The total charge was $1,149, paid with an agency credit card, the receipt shows. The receipt says a seven-level wipe was performed but doesn't mention any computer virus.

Jeff Phelps, who runs Washington's Geeks on Call franchise, declined to talk about specific clients, but said calls placed directly by government officials are unusual. He also said erasing a drive is an unusual virus treatment. "We don't do a seven-level wipe for a virus," he said.

Mr. Bloch was a loyal member of the Bush administration, serving in the Justice Department's office of faith-based programs, when the president named him to head the Office of Special Counsel in 2003. Unlike many administration appointees, Mr. Bloch doesn't serve at the pleasure of the president. He has a fixed five-year term and may be removed only for malfeasance. That is supposed to ensure his agency has the independence to pursue any probe.

Mr. Bloch's investigation of the White House political operation began after a Rove deputy gave a series of political presentations to government agencies on Republican prospects in specific congressional races. Mr. Bloch's office wants to know whether such presentations violated the Hatch Act, a law forbidding the use of federal resources to back candidates for office.

The Office of Special Counsel has set up a task force of lawyers and investigators, led by Mr. Bloch's deputy, James Byrne, to determine which agencies got political briefings from the White House. The agency plans to interview officials at more than 20 agencies and is examining White House emails and documents.

In one email, sent by the U.S. drug-control office and disclosed this summer, an official quotes Mr. Rove as being pleased that officials at the Commerce, Transportation and Agriculture departments went "above and beyond" the call of duty in arranging appearances by cabinet members at Republican campaign events.

Mr. Rove has resigned from the White House and is no longer under jurisdiction of the Office of Special Counsel. His attorney, Robert Luskin, declined to comment.

The special counsel's probe has already found one alleged violation, at the General Services Administration, where Rove deputies gave a presentation on Jan. 26. At the end of the presentation, according to a report by Mr. Bloch's office on the incident, GSA Administrator Lurita Doan asked, "How can we help our candidates?" Twenty participants in the meeting recalled substantially the same words, the report said.

In a letter to President Bush, Mr. Bloch urged that Ms. Doan "be disciplined to the fullest extent for her serious violation of the Hatch Act" and for failing to cooperate "fully and honestly" with the probe. The White House hasn't acted on Mr. Bloch's request. In a response, Ms. Doan said the investigation was "far off the mark." Her lawyer urged the White House to ignore Mr. Bloch's findings, citing a "clear lack of objectivity and impartiality."

Now, Mr. Bloch is facing claims that he too isn't cooperating with investigators. Agents working for the inspector general of the Office of Personnel Management are seeking his emails and a copy of an encrypted flash drive he bought from the Geek service.

"I have nothing to hide and I've cooperated with all legitimate requests," Mr. Bloch said.

Write to John R. Wilke at john.wilke@wsj.com

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