No Comment — January 29, 2008, 11:56 am

More Obstruction at Justice

Richard Schmitt and Tom Hamburger at the Los Angeles Times are reporting this morning on the status of the probe by Scott Bloch, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, into the December 7, 2006 firing by Attorney General Gonzales of eight U.S. attorneys. The suspicion, now bolstered by a substantial amount of investigative work by the press and by Congressional oversight organs, is, that the firings occurred for corrupt purposes. The terminated U.S. attorneys had been under intense pressure to bring election-eve charges against Democrats, or to suppress criminal investigations targeting Republicans. Each had refused these overtures and insisted on handling the investigations “by the book.” And that vestige of professionalism was, in the White House’s book, a show-stopper.

But it seems that Justice is throwing a series of obstacles in the way of the investigation.

Scott J. Bloch, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, wrote Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey last week that the department had repeatedly “impeded” his investigation by refusing to share documents and provide answers to written questions, according to a copy of Bloch’s letter obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Justice Department wants Bloch to wait until its own internal investigation is completed. A department official signaled recently that the investigation is examining the possibility of criminal charges.

But that, the regulator wrote, could take until the last months of the Bush administration, “when there is little hope of any corrective measures or discipline possible” being taken by his office. Bloch’s allegations show how the controversy, which mostly focused on the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, continues to boil inside government.

Since last spring, the Justice Department’s inspector general and its top ethics officer have been jointly investigating the firings, along with allegations that the department, under Gonzales, allowed political considerations to factor into the hiring of career employees. . .

Bloch. . . asserted in his letter to Mukasey that he had independent authority to investigate “political intrusion into personnel decision making” at the Justice Department. He said that he had asked Justice officials on several occasions for access to documents and other evidence and that he had been repeatedly rebuffed. He also accused the department of failing to take seriously allegations against the former U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, Rachel K. Paulose. A career prosecutor in her office had filed a complaint with Bloch accusing Paulose of mismanagement and abuse of her authority.

Bloch said he referred the complaint to the Justice Department for further investigation because there was a “substantial likelihood” that the allegations, if proven, would constitute wrongdoing. He said Justice officials disagreed with his conclusion without conducting an adequate review. His letter indicates that Justice officials believed that Bloch had failed to investigate the complaint before sending it on to the department.

Paulose resigned late last year as the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis to accept a top legal policy job at Justice Department headquarters in Washington. “Are you requesting that I report to the president that you refuse to investigate disclosures of wrongdoing made by a career federal prosecutor, an employee of your agency?” Bloch wrote to Mukasey.

The probe inside of the Justice Department is being handled jointly by the Office of Independent Counsel and the Office of Professional Responsibility, two teams of disparate levels of independence, professionalism and investigative acumen. Over the last several years, OIG, headed by Glenn Fine, has won widespread credit for conducting aggressive and timely investigations with an even hand. The same cannot be said for OPR, headed by H. Marshall Jarrett, which has been bureaucratic, sluggish, incurious and at times subject to overt political manipulation.

In any event, however, the Justice Department’s internal probe is also subject to internal controls, which would not happen with Bloch. Which explains why Justice has decided to obstruct Bloch’s inquiry.

Michael Mukasey appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow. There is no shortage of subjects to raise with him, and the Justice Department’s obstruction of the probe into the firing of the Gonzales Eight is certainly one.

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