The White House acknowledged Thursday it has conducted about 20 briefings recently for federal agency employees on the election prospects of Republican candidates - the sort of meetings that sparked an investigation into whether Bush aides engaged in illegal political activity.
An independent investigative unit, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, this week launched a probe into a presentation by Bush aide J. Scott Jennings to political appointees at the General Services Administration. At issue is whether the January session violated the federal Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activities with government resources or on government time.
The Office of Special Counsel, led by Scott Bloch, is in charge of enforcing the Hatch Act. At the same time, Bloch himself is being investigated by the Bush administration on separate matters, including his enforcement of the Hatch Act.
'These briefings were not inappropriate"
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said briefings were held at other federal agencies besides the GSA, for a total of about 20 - most in 2006 and a couple in 2007. They were conducted by White House political director Sara Taylor or Jennings, her deputy. It had been known that other briefings had been held, but not how many.
Others were held in previous years as well, but Stanzel said the White House hasn't kept a count of how many.
Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said no laws were broken and that the White House counsel's office signed off on the effort.
"It's not unlawful and it wasn't unusual for informational briefings to be given," Perino said. "There is no prohibition under the Hatch Act of allowing political appointees to talk to other political appointees about the political landscape in which they are trying to advance the president's agenda."
She added: "These briefings were not inappropriate, they were not unlawful, they were not unethical."
Another point of view
Some Democrats beg to differ.
They have alleged that at the end of the January presentation at GSA, Administrator Lurita Doan asked all present to consider how they could use the agency to "help our candidates" in 2008. They also question whether the PowerPoint demonstration Jennings used violated the Hatch Act.
At the same time that Bloch is investigating the White House, the Bush administration is investigating Bloch for his handling of Hatch Act cases - as well as a complaint filed against Bloch by a group of career Office of Special Counsel employees and four public interest groups.
The complaint alleges that Bloch created a hostile work environment with retaliatory acts against his employees. It states that 12 career employees were involuntarily reassigned because they were believed to have been involved in whistle-blowing. The complaint, being handled by the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general, also alleges that Bloch did not enforce bans against discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal work place.
"The OPM investigation is a completely separate matter," said Loren Smith, a spokesman for Bloch's office.
Debra Katz, an attorney representing the employees, alleged on Thursday that Bloch launched the investigation into political activity at the White House because he feared repercussions from the investigation of his own activities.
The White House would find it difficult to fire Bloch if he is leading an investigation into the White House, she suggested in a letter she sent Thursday to White House counsel Fred Fielding. The letter asks that Bloch be required to recuse himself from the White House investigation, and that it be reassigned to another government inspector general.