A Bush administration official who came under criticism for refusing to enforce anti-discrimination policies protecting gay federal workers was sentenced on March 30 to one month in jail on a charge of criminal contempt of Congress.
Scott J. Bloch, who served as head of the U.S. Office of Special Council from 2004 to 2008, is appealing the sentence, which was handed down in Washington by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson. Robinson also sentenced him to one year of unsupervised probation and 200 hours of community service.
She agreed to put a stay on the sentence while Bloch’s attorney, William Sullivan, files an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Sullivan said the appeal is based on Bloch’s contention that he did not know the offense of contempt of Congress, to which he pleaded guilty in April 2010, carries a required minimum sentence of 30 days in jail.
The appeal seeks to overturn Robinson’s denial last month of a motion by Bloch to withdraw his guilty plea.
Robinson said she interpreted the statute to include a required jail term of at least one month for those convicted of or who plead guilty to criminal contempt of Congress. She noted that at the time Bloch pleaded guilty, he explicitly acknowledged — in response to her questions in the courtroom — that a prosecutors’ plea bargain agreement he accepted did not prevent her from sentencing him to a prison term of up to six months.
Sullivan strongly disputes her interpretation of the statute, saying in court papers that two other judges have sentenced people convicted under the contempt of Congress statute to probation without any jail time. Robinson said those cases were irrelevant because the statute gives her discretion to sentence Bloch to up to six months in jail.
Bloch’s sentencing last week marked yet another twist in a seven-year saga that began in 2004, upon his appointment by President George W. Bush as head of an office charged with protecting federal employees from discriminatory personnel practices. The independent Office of Special Counsel, which Bloch headed, is also charged with protecting federal employees who become whistleblowers by disclosing corruption or gross incompetence within federal government agencies.
Immediately upon taking office, Bloch announced that he disagreed with a longstanding interpretation of a U.S. civil service law believed to protect federal workers from job-related discrimination based solely on their sexual orientation. Saying he interpreted the statute to limit its coverage of gays to matters involving “homosexual acts,” Bloch said gay or lesbian federal employees could no longer be protected against improper personnel practices based on their sexual orientation.
His position on gay federal workers triggered an immediate outcry from LGBT advocacy organizations and their allies in Congress. A spokesperson for Bush surprised some political observers when he said it remained the policy of the White House and the administration that gay or lesbian federal workers were, in fact, protected against sexual orientation discrimination.
LGBT rights groups, while expressing appreciation for the Bush administration statement, pointed out that Bloch appeared to be ignoring the statement by continuing to operate the Office of Special Counsel as if gay and lesbian federal employees were not protected.
In addition to criticism over his position on gay federal workers, Block came under attack over allegations that he improperly sought to purge employees in his office who disagreed with him, including at least two gay employees. The latter allegations led to a congressional investigation into Bloch and the Office of Special Counsel.
Allegations that eventually led to his being charged with contempt of Congress began in 2006, when investigators raised questions about whether Bloch arranged for a computer services company called Geeks on Call to “scrub” files from his office computer as well as from the computers of two of his political appointees at the Office of Special Counsel.
Bloch was under investigation at the time by the inspector general of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management that he allegedly improperly retaliated against former Office of Special Counsel employees.
In May 2008, the FBI raided Bloch’s office and home, confiscating computers and various files. In October 2008 the White House requested and received his resignation.
The case docket for the U.S. District Court, which is now handling Bloch’s criminal case, shows that his sentencing date was postponed several times since he pleaded guilty nearly a year ago. The main cause of the postponements has been his attorney’s dispute with the judge over whether the contempt of Congress statute carries a mandatory jail term of at least 30 days.
In an unusual development, federal prosecutors joined defense attorney Sullivan in arguing in court filings that they did not agree with Robinson’s interpretation that the statute carries a required jail term. Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Leon, the lead prosecutor in the case, argued in court papers that the government believes the statute gives judges discretion to sentence someone to probation without a prison term.
“Both parties entered into the plea agreement believing that 2 U.S.C. 192 [the contempt of Congress statute] was a probation-eligible offense,” Leon said in a court brief. “In light of the Court’s ruling to the contrary, the government believes that fairness requires it to not oppose the defendant’s motion to withdraw, because otherwise the plea agreement would not reflect what the parties negotiated and agreed to in good faith.”
Some critics, including gay blogger John Aravosis of AmericaBlog, questioned whether the Obama administration was siding with Bloch to prevent a legal precedent that could result in the jailing of Obama administration officials who might get into trouble with the law in the future.
During a court hearing last week, Robinson agreed to consider another request by Sullivan that she allow Bloch to serve his one-month jail sentence in home confinement if the sentence is upheld on appeal.