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Former Office of Special Counsel Director Scott Bloch sentenced

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It appears that the labyrinthine legal saga of Scott Bloch is over. Bloch, the former head of the government’s whistleblower protection office who once stood accused (incorrectly, he said) of retaliating against whistleblowers, was sentenced yesterday for having files erased from government computers, according to The Washington Post.

Bloch’s lawyer, William Sullivan, confirmed the terms of the sentence to FedLine today: Two years probation, a $5,000 fine, 200 hours community service, and–as a special condition of Bloch’s probation–one day in prison to be served at a facility in the Eastern District of Virginia. The Post has a succinct wrap-up of the case; for anyone wanting a somewhat more irreverent take on just how protracted the proceedings became, here’s a another FedLine post from two years ago.

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Legislation tweaking Hatch Act goes to White House

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The Merit Systems Protection Board would be able to mete out a wider range of punishments for Hatch Act violators under a bill that won final congressional approval today and now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Instead of firing violators–the only authorized penalty up to now unless the board unanimously opts for a different route–the MSPB  could issue formal reprimands; reduce violators’ pay grades; bar them from federal employment for up to five years; or fine them up to $1,000.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, sponsored the bill in the Senate; Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., handled it in the House. “These reforms will make the Hatch Act more fair and more effective,” Cummings said in a news release this afternoon.

The 1939 Hatch Act, (officially known, in case you were wondering, as “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”), generally bars feds from partisan political activity. It was seen both by Republicans and Democrats as needing a refresh, although the two sides differed on particulars. The status quo is “clear as mud,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., declared at a hearing last year of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he chairs. (Cummings is the top Democrat.) So far, however, Issa has not introduced any legislation.

Also pressing for change was Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, the agency charged with Hatch Act enforcement. At the law’s best, it keeps people in political power from abusing their positions, Lerner wrote in a New York Times op-ed. At its worst, she said, it prevents would-be candidates in state and local races from running for office because their jobs are in some trivial way tied to federal funding.

How trivial? Well, in one instance, a Pennsylvania policeman wanted to run for school board, but was told by Lerner’s office that the law wouldn’t allow it. His bomb-sniffing dog, after all, was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The newly passed bill would explicitly allow local and states candidate to run for partisan political office. Obama is expected to sign the bill.

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Special Counsel warns against targeted monitoring of whistleblowers

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The U.S. Special Counsel on Wednesday warned that agencies could be reprimanded for targeting whistleblowers and monitoring emails that report wrongdoing.

In the memo, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said that targeting emails between whistleblowers and the OSC or inspectors general for surveillance is “highly problematic.” Agencies that deliberately target whistleblowers’ submissions or draft submissions to OSC or IGs could be accused of retaliating against the employees, Lerner said.

“This is the first finding that we are aware of in which a government agency has stated that there are limits on how federal agencies can monitor employee email,” Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said in an interview.

The guidance comes fives months after six current and former Food and Drug Administration whistleblowers, whom Kohn represents, filed a lawsuit claiming that top FDA managers monitored and seized emails from their personal email accounts.

FDA fired two employees and did not renew contracts for two others.

The matter is pending in the U.S. District Court of Washington and at the OSC, which launched an investigation to determine whether the FDA broke personnel rules

The FDA case alone didn’t prompt OSC to release the memo, OSC spokeswoman Ann O’Hanlon said in an interview. The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency had requested guidance from OSC about electronic monitoring policies.

While agencies have a right to monitor employee emails and business conducted on government-issued devices, “federal law also protects the ability of workers to exercise their legal rights to disclose wrongdoing without fear of retaliation,” Lerner said.

She also urged agencies to ensure their electronic monitoring policies do not interfere with or deter employees from reporting fraud, waste and abuse.

“There has to be a bottom line that you can’t target whistleblowers,” Kohn said.

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Judge: Scott Bloch can withdraw guilty plea

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DC District Court Judge Royce Lamberth yesterday ruled that former Special Counsel Scott Bloch can withdraw his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of lying to Congress.

Bloch in February asked to withdraw his plea after he learned it would carry a minimum sentence of one month in jail. Bloch said he was never told he faced mandatory prison time if he pleaded guilty.

Lamberth said that Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson, who conducted Bloch’s plea hearing in April 2010, acknowledged not telling Bloch about the mandatory sentence. Lamberth also said that Robinson used language that suggested the prison time was instead optional. This was a mistake, Lamberth said.

Federal prosecutors are not opposing Bloch’s request to withdraw his guilty plea. They said they also believed Bloch could get probation by pleading guilty instead of having to go to jail.

Bloch allegedly retaliated against whistleblowers in his office by having them moved to a newly created Detroit office. While the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general was investigating those allegations, Bloch had his laptop’s hard drive wiped. He said it had a computer virus, but critics believed he was trying to destroy evidence that showed he had retaliated.

The FBI raided his home in May 2008 searching for evidence he had obstructed justice by wiping the laptop.

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Hatch Act photo restrictions in force as campaign season begins

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Attention, feds: Those cubicle photos, work computer screensavers and other shots of President Obama may have to go now that he’s formally seeking a second term.

Under the Hatch Act, federal employees are generally barred from displaying workplace pictures of partisan political candidates, the Office of Special Counsel says in an advisory opinion issued after Obama announced his re-election bid earlier this month.

There are just two exceptions.

The first involves the standard portrait photo and other official pictures of the President meeting heads of states or conducting other official business (no adding halos or horns, however, the OSC warns). And if the photo comes from the president’s campaign or a partisan political group, it’s still taboo even if it shows Obama carrying out his official duties.

The other exception involves personal photos, but the bar is high. Assuming that the photo shows you and Obama, was taken at a wedding or some other personal function and was on display before the election season, you can keep it up.  The same standards apply to other candidate photos,  incidentally.

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Scott Bloch calls backsies on guilty plea

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Former Special Counsel Scott Bloch yesterday filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of contempt of Congress. His reason for calling backsies? Nobody told him that he’d have to go to jail after pleading guilty.

In his motion, Bloch said that the court didn’t ask him if he knew about and understood any potential minimum sentence that might follow his April 2010 guilty plea. Months later, Bloch said, the court’s pre-sentence investigation said that this particular charge carried with it a minimum sentence of one month in jail.

Which was news to Bloch. He said both the prosecution and defense previously said this charge came with no mandatory minimum prison sentence and that the pre-sentence investigation’s was “the very first time” this penalty was discussed.

This means, of course, that the saga of Scott Bloch is never. Going. To end.

Here’s a nutshell summary of Bloch’s tumultuous stint as special counsel I wrote last December:

Soon after taking charge of the office in 2004, Bloch argued that federal workplace discrimination laws did not include sexual orientation as a prohibited personnel practice, and removed all references to such discrimination from OSC materials. The White House overruled Bloch and said sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited, and OSC resumed processing those discrimination complaints.

Bloch allegedly retaliated against OSC employees who leaked that decision to the press, and tried to have them moved to a newly created Detroit office. And while the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general was investigating those allegations, Bloch had his laptop computer wiped. Bloch said his computer had a virus, but critics believed he was trying to destroy evidence that would show he had retaliated.

The FBI raided Bloch’s home in May 2008 searching for evidence he obstructed justice by wiping the laptop, and in April he pleaded guilty to a charge of contempt of Congress. He has not been sentenced.

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OSC issues Hatch Act reminder

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Yes, political passions are at fever pitch this election season, but federal workers are risking their jobs if they cross in the line into activity banned by the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel warns in a news release. The agency is responsible for enforcement of the act, which generally bars partisan politicking on government time.

As evidence, the agency cites two cases that it took to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Both involved workers who in 2008 sent fund-raising e-mails while at work on behalf of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

In one of those cases, involving an IRS agent, the board in August ordered a 120-day suspension. In the other, where a Bureau of Printing and Engraving contracting officer sent fund-raising pitches to three contract workers over whom she had “authority and influence,” the board in June ordered her fired after a 38-year government career.

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Former U.S. special counsel charged with contempt

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Scott Bloch, who led the Office of Special Counsel during the Bush administration, was charged with criminal contempt of Congress on Thursday, Reuters reports.

Bloch was forced out of office  in October 2008 after a tumultuous term that culminated in FBI agents raiding his office and home. They were searching for evidence that he obstructed justice during a federal investigation into whether he retaliated against employees who disagreed with how he managed the agency, which is charged with protecting federal whistleblowers and other employees from retaliation.

Bloch was widely suspected of having his computer wiped clean of files that may have supported the claims of retaliation leveled against him. Bloch insisted he had his computer scrubbed because it was infected with a virus.

Bloch “unlawfully and willfully withheld pertinent information from the committee” about the erasure during an interview with federal investigators in March 2008, according to a criminal information filing by prosecutors in U.S. District Court, Reuters said. Prosecutors charged Bloch with criminal contempt of Congress.

Such criminal information filings are typically used when a defendant plans a plea agreement with prosecutors, resulting in a guilty plea, Reuters reported. Bloch’s lawyer, William Sullivan, declined to say whether his client would plead guilty but said he was glad the five-year investigation was over for his client.

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One year later, no special counsel

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Something I’ve been wondering lately, both because Barack Obama the presidential candidate said a lot of good things about whistleblowers, and because I spent a not-inconsequential part of 2008 reporting on Scott Bloch: Why hasn’t the White House appointed a new special counsel?

I know President Barack Obama still has hundreds of positions to fill. But the top job at the Office of Special Counsel would seem to be an important one. The agency hasn’t had political leadership since October 2008, when the Bush administration forced Bloch to resign.

OSC employees I’ve talked to generally say the agency needs some reorganization, but William Reukauf, the acting special counsel, told me last year that he planned to act as a caretaker. Reorganization, in other words, would have to wait for political leadership. He told Government Executive in May that the agency is “looking forward anxiously” for a new political leader.

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Your donations, Bloch's defense

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Can’t find a worthy charity in the Combined Federal Campaign?

Send a check to the Scott Bloch Legal Defense Trust! (Donations are not tax-deductible, sorry.)

The recently-retired special counsel is looking for help to defray his mounting legal costs. Bloch was forced out of office last week, an event that capped years of controversy surrounding his tenure, but still faces an ongoing grand jury investigation.

The Web site includes praise for Bloch from a number of conservative luminaries, including Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes, Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.)

Noticeably absent is any praise from current or former employees of the Office of Special Counsel.

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