WASHINGTON - The White House acknowledged yesterday that it had conducted about 20 briefings for federal employees on the election prospects of Republican candidates - the sort of meetings that have led to an investigation into administration political activity.
An independent investigative unit, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, this week began a probe into a January presentation by Bush aide J. Scott Jennings to political appointees at the General Services Administration. At issue is whether the session violated the 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.
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 had not kept a count of how many.
Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said that 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."
Some Democrats disagreed.
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 questioned whether the PowerPoint demonstration Jennings used violated the Hatch Act.
At the same time Bloch is investigating the White House, the administration is investigating him 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 workplace.
"The OPM investigation is a completely separate matter," said Loren Smith, a spokesman for Bloch, who has denied the allegations in the complaint.
Debra Katz, an attorney for the employees, alleged that Bloch began 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 was leading a probe into the White House, she suggested in a letter to White House counsel Fred Fielding. The letter, released yesterday, asks that Bloch be required to recuse himself from the White House investigation.