A little-known federal investigative unit has launched a probe into allegations of illegal political activity within the executive branch, including a White House office led by President Bush's close adviser, Karl Rove.
The new investigation, which began several weeks ago, grew out of two other investigations still under way at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel: the firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias from New Mexico and a presentation by Rove aide J. Scott Jennings to political appointees at the General Services Administration on how to help Republican candidates in 2008.
"We're in the preliminary stages of opening this expanded investigation," Loren Smith, a spokesman for the special counsel's office, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency, said Tuesday. "The recent suggestion of illegal political activities across the executive branch was the basis we used to decide that it was important to look into possible violations of the Hatch Act."
The office, led by Scott J. Bloch, enforces the Hatch Act, a 70-year-old law that bars federal employees from engaging in political activities using government resources or on government time.
Whether politics played an inappropriate part in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, including Iglesias, was at the heart of the controversy that has threatened Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' job. Whether executive branch employees violated federal laws that restrict them from using their posts for political activity also is at the center of the controversy about the January meeting at GSA.
'Help our candidate'
"Six participants have confirmed that, at the end of the presentation, GSA Administrator Lurita Doan asked all present to consider how they could use GSA to 'help our candidates' in 2008,'" 25 Democrats wrote in a letter of complaint on Monday to White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten.
Among questions the senators asked Bolten:
-"Why did Mr. Jennings and his staff communicate the presentation materials which bear the White House seal, via a private e-mail account affiliated with the Republican National Committee?"
-"Does the White House consider the preparation and delivery of such a presentation to be an appropriate use of taxpayer funds?"
The Los Angeles Times, which first reported the wider inquiry, said Doan doesn't recall making such comments.
The White House said it had not yet been contacted by the Office of Special Counsel on the matter.
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday that it was entirely appropriate for the president's staff to provide informational briefings to appointees throughout the federal government about the political landscape in which they implement the president's policies. The White House said there have been other briefings at other agencies.
"People take great care to make sure that they don't violate the Hatch Act," Perino said, "and the Hatch Act doesn't prohibit the giving of informational briefings to governmental employees."