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Paulose investigation still on, but is Justice stonewalling?

Rachel Paulose is ensconced in a new Justice Department job in Washington, D.C., but the issues and allegations raised by her stormy tenure as U.S. attorney for Minnesota linger on — in fact, they are flaring up anew.

The federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which is still investigating some of the allegations against Paulose, accuses the Justice Department of stonewalling on the Paulose case, among others.

In a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey (PDF), Special Counsel Scott Bloch said his investigation of Paulose and other matters, including the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, is “being impeded.” Bloch demands to know whether the deputy attorney general and the inspector general of the Justice Department, who are impeding the Paulose investigation, are acting under Mukasey’s orders.

The Justice Department did not respond to my inquiries Monday. Mukasey may be asked publicly about the matter Wednesday when he is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter was sent Friday to Mukasey, the White House counsel, the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The letter was not made public, but MinnPost obtained a copy.

It should be noted that Bloch has himself been under investigation for two years and stands accused of some of the very types of violations that the OSC is charged with investigating (details below).

Behind the scenes
The letter provides a glimpse into what was occurring behind the scenes in Washington last year, while Paulose was fighting to keep her job, and after she announced she was leaving.

The OSC, an independent executive branch agency that is not part of the Justice Department, had received a whistleblower complaint about Paulose from Assistant U.S. Attorney John Marti, who had stepped down from his position as Paulose’s top deputy in protest against her degrading management style. As characterized by the Bloch letter of last week, Marti alleged that Paulose’s management “by fear and intimidation” was disrupting the operation of the office.

While OSC proceeded to investigate those areas over which it has direct authority — specifically relating to prohibited personnel practices, or to the possibility that Paulose had retaliated against Marti for blowing the whistle on her — Bloch referred other matters — such as the allegation that Paulose had mishandled classified national security documents, and the belief that her management style was undermining the morale and efficiency of the office — to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine last August for investigation.

In October, according to Bloch’s letter, Justice replied by phone that the inspector general had “asked around” and “was not planning on doing anything ” on the case.

That didn’t satisfy OSC. On Nov. 19, shortly after Mukasey took office, Bloch sent him a formal written referral which concluded that there was a “substantial likelihood” that Paulose’s conduct constituted “an abuse of authority and gross mismanagement.”

Nov. 19 was also the day that Paulose suddenly announced her resignation from the Minnesota job, to take a job with main Justice in Washington. It isn’t clear whether the two events on the same day were related or coincidental. Paulose resigned as several of the top managers of the Minnesota office were meeting to discuss a group resignation, and that has previously been assumed to be the development that pushed her to resign. The clouds over Paulose’s tenure in Minneapolis had grown quite dark and I had speculated a month earlier that she was entering her final days in the job. So it’s hard to say whether the OSC’s finding of “substantial likelihood” was a factor in her decision to leave.

If Paulose had not taken another federal job, as counselor to the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Policy, the issue might have been dropped. But as long as she remained a federal employee, the investigation stayed alive, with the possibility that a negative finding would lead to Paulose being suspended, fired and/or barred from future federal employment.

Bloch makes the question personal
On Dec. 11 (Paulose was still technically the U.S. attorney for Minnesota; her resignation took effect at the end of the year), Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis replied to the referral, stating that even if all of Marti’s allegations were true, they would not support a finding of mismanagement and abuse of authority by Paulose. Margolis asked Bloch to take back his finding of “substantial likelihood.”

According to Bloch’s letter, the question of “substantial likelihood” is entirely up to the special counsel, and Justice does not have discretion over whether to cooperate with the investigation. Declining to cooperate is a violation of the law, he tells Mukasey in the letter. Since Mukasey is supposed to be addressing excesses of politicization by his predecessor, Bloch’s letter tries to make the question personal.

Referring to the pushback he has received from Mukasey’s subordinates, Bloch asks: “Are you requesting I report to the president that you refuse to investigate disclosures made by a career federal prosecutor, and employee of your agency? [This is a reference Marti.] That you demand that I reconsider my statutorily authorized substantial likelihood finding and rescind my referral because it is the opinion of your Associate Deputy Attorney General that there has been no gross mismanagement? That you demand that I report back to this career federal employee, a recipient of the Attorney General’s award, who has courageously come forward to report wrongdoing?”

Bloch adds that he is “gravely concerned that the attorney general is asking a presidentially-appointed official [that would be Bloch himself] to disregard his statutory duty.”

As noted above, Bloch does not come into the matter of improper personnel practices with a clean reputation himself. He stands accused of several serious improprieties, including several of the kind that the OSC investigates. The Government Accountability Project, Project on Government Oversight, and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have formally complained that Bloch retaliated against whistleblowers in his office. Bloch has been under investigation by the Office of Personnel Management for two years. In November, the same month that Paulose resigned, it was revealed that Bloch had used private specialists to erase from his office computer documents sought by investigators.

As I also mentioned above, Bloch’s letter to Mukasey is not all about Paulose. He also expresses frustration with a lack of cooperation into investigations of David Iglesias and other U.S. attorneys who were forced to resign in 2007 and expressed some suspicion that Justice is trying to run out the clock until “the last months of the administration when there is little hope of any corrective measures or discipline possible.”

Eric Black writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.


PDF: Special Counsel Scott Bloch’s letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey

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