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Federal Agents Investigate Whistle-Blower Agency

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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