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Justice Dept. accused of blocking Gonzales probe

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The government agency that enforces one of the principal laws aimed at keeping politics out of the civil service has accused the Justice Department of blocking its investigation into alleged politicizing of the department under former Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.

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.

The 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 runs an obscure agency charged with protecting federal whistle-blowers from reprisal and enforcing the Hatch Act, which limits use of government resources for election purposes. He has gained a measure of renown for investigating reports that the White House gave political briefings about GOP election prospects to senior officials at federal agencies.

A controversial figure in Washington, he has been accused by subordinates of harassment and intimidation, and also of mismanaging his office. The Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been investigating these claims and is also looking into allegations that Bloch erased files on his own computers while the personnel office inquiry was under way.

Bloch, who has denied those allegations, 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.

He added that the demand that he step aside in the broader U.S. attorney probe "reveals a disturbing pattern of disregard for the authority of my office."

Peter A. Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, said, "We are reviewing the letter and will respond to Mr. Bloch as appropriate."

A spokesman for Bloch declined to comment.

Mukasey is set to appear Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing, the first since he was sworn in as attorney general late last year.

The status of the internal investigation of the department under Gonzales has been of great interest to lawmakers. The furor over the U.S. attorney dismissals was one of the factors that drove Gonzales, one of Bush's closest confidants, from office last year. Democrats believe that the U.S. attorneys were identified for dismissal based on their history of pursuing cases that could benefit Republican office-holders.

Separately, Bloch's office is reviewing an extensive complaint from a whistle-blower regarding politicization of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. His office has not yet decided whether to launch an investigation, but a number of interest groups Monday accused the Justice Department of helping Republicans gain control over the commission.

The organizations, which include Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, have drafted a letter asking Mukasey to rescind a 2004 department legal opinion that sanctioned the decision by a Republican member of the panel to switch parties in order to stay on the commission. The civil rights groups, which have called a news conference for today, said the department memo appeared to undermine Congress' intent to have a political balance on the commission.

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

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