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You know it's bad news for the White House when agencies you'd never even heard of start launching investigations into the administration.

This time, it's the Office of Special Counsel, a federal investigative unit that's charged with monitoring federal employees, not to be confused with a special counsel or special prosecutor such as Patrick Fitzgerald. The OSC is charged with policing Hatch Act violations and protecting whistleblowers, among other duties. It's a permanent federal agency, and it's prosecutions are not criminal prosecutions.

But the OSC does have teeth. If it successfully prosecutes a federal employee before the Merit Systems Protection Board (which acts as its judge), then that employee can be terminated. That employee, in this instance, is Karl Rove.

Well, it's Rove and others in his office... and possibly others still. Here's how The Los Angeles Times frames the OSC investigation:

... the Office of Special Counsel is preparing to jump into one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive issues in Washington, launching a broad investigation into key elements of the White House political operations that for more than six years have been headed by chief strategist Karl Rove.

The new investigation, which will examine the firing of at least one U.S. attorney, missing White House e-mails, and White House efforts to keep presidential appointees attuned to Republican political priorities, could create a substantial new problem for the Bush White House....

"We will take the evidence where it leads us," Scott J. Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel and a presidential appointee, said in an interview Monday. "We will not leave any stone unturned."

Bloch (who is, by the way, a Bush appointee) seems to have combined a host of investigations -- 1) whether U.S. Attorney for New Mexico David Iglesias was wrongly terminated due to his Navy reserve service, and 2) the White House's use of RNC-issued email accounts to conduct government business, and 3) Rove's and his deputy's presentations to federal employees about Republican electoral prospects -- into one big stew pot of wrongdoing.

Of all three, Rove's now-infamous briefings would seem to be the most fertile investigatory ground for Bloch. As Tom Hamburger reports, Rove has been giving those presentations to federal employees since the beginning of the administration:

...Rove and his top aides met each year with presidential appointees throughout the government, using PowerPoint presentations to review polling data and describe high-priority congressional and other campaigns around the country....

A former Interior Department official, Wayne R. Smith, who sat through briefings from Rove and his then-deputy Ken Mehlman, said that during President Bush's first term, he and other appointees were frequently briefed on political priorities.

"We were constantly being reminded about how our decisions could affect electoral results," Smith said.

Employees, Hamburger reports, "got a not-so-subtle message about helping endangered Republicans."

It's hard to imagine how such presentations are not violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits using federal resources for political ends. But that doesn't mean that the White House isn't already trying out a line of defense. Yesterday, 25 Democratic senators wrote the White House to demand answers about the presentations. And the White House replied, via a spokesman:
"It is 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 and priorities."

It sounds so innocuous, doesn't it? Much more innocuous than the slides themselves.

Update: A number of readers have written in to point out that Bloch, who heads up an agency that is supposed to protect federal whistleblowers, is himself under investigation for intimidating and threatening his own employees. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Shakespeare's Sister has more.

Yet another shoe drops in the Jack Abramoff investigation. A former aide to Rep. Don Young (R-AK), Mark Zachares, looks set to plead guilty to corruption charges.

The Justice Department filed a criminal information today on Zachares, laying out the facts to which he'll be pleading guilty. You can read it here. A plea hearing has been scheduled for tomorrow.

According to the document, Zachares and Abramoff had what they called their "two year plan": Zacheres would work for Abramoff on the inside, taking advantage of his congressional position to throw business Abramoff's way, and eventually, when Zachares left Congress, Abramoff would reward him. As the information reads: Abramoff "would 'credit' Zachares with the 'business' Zachares... referred or developed for Abramoff's firm, and would ultimately employ Zachares as a lobbyist credited 'with business,' warranting a high annual salary."

In addition to the usual stream of junkets, meals, and sports tickets, Abramoff also funneled $10,000 to Zachares through one of his phony charities. In return, Zachares referred clients and provided a number of favors for Abramoff's various clients.

The document does not implicate Rep. Young, but it does mention that in 2002, Abramoff "assisted Zachares in obtaining his position as a staffer on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee," which Young chaired. And Young has come up often in the course of the Abramoff scandal.

My call to Young's office was not immediately returned.

Update: Some background on Zachares, courtesy of The Washington Post last year below.

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During the White House press briefing today, Dana Perino mounted the latest rousing defense of the attorney general.

When asked how the president could have increased confidence in Gonzales after he'd pled a faulty memory some 64 times during the hearing, Perino replied that "many of those questions were repeated over and over.... [he] was asked multiple questions in various different ways on the same topics." So in other words, Gonzales only had to say "I don't remember" so often because the senators asked so very many questions. Shame on them.

And Perino also added some much needed perspective. While Gonzales may have made some people unhappy with all that memory failure, "what would have been dishonorable is if [he] had made it up." Touché.

While we're at it, here's my choice for Gonzales' most risible failure of memory.

Move over, Al Gonzales, there's a new campaign for the resignation of a Bush appointee.

General Services Administration chief Lurita Doan shocked the world last month when she gave a performance at a House hearing that was enough to make even Gonzales cringe.

In January, Karl Rove's deputy, Scott Jennings, arrived at the GSA to give a briefing on Republican political prospects. After the presentation, Doan reportedly asked aloud what the GSA could do with its considerable taxpayer-funded assets "to help our candidates." When asked about the briefing at the hearing, Doan pleaded a fuzzy memory.

Ever since the briefing was revealed, Democrats have been vainly trying to get answers from the White House about this and other presentations. So today, 25 senators wrote the White House, demanding answers. You can read the letter here. "The Executive Branch is not an extension of the Republican National Committee," it reads, "nor of any political party. Those who treat it as such must be held accountable."

Also today, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) called for Doan's resignation -- because of the presentation... and a host of other reasons enumerated below the fold.

Any guesses on how long it is before Doan joins that"pretty small number" of administration figures in whom Bush has to express confidence?

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At this point, I think it's a re-re-re-reaffirmation of his confidence in Gonzales -- but I'll have to go back and check. From this morning:

Q The Attorney General is still getting a lot of criticism over the U.S. attorneys situation. Was his explanation sufficient, or is there more he needs to do to try to turn things around?

THE PRESIDENT: The Attorney General went up and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job.

One of the things that's important for the American people to understand is that the Attorney General has a right to recommend to me to replace U.S. attorneys. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President. In other words, we have named them, and I have the right to replace them with somebody else. And as the investigation, the hearings went forward, it was clear that the Attorney General broke no law, did no wrongdoing. And some senators didn't like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could. This is an honest, honorable man, in whom I have confidence.

I'm going to assume his comment that Gonzales answered all the questions he could "honestly answer" is just yet another of Bush's infelicitous phrasings. But that didn't stop me from snickering.

Gonzales Hearing Showcases Policy Shift Most of the public dissection of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ testimony last week dwelt on the pummeling he took at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee, particularly from members of his own party. But beyond the relentless back-and-forth combat between Gonzales and hostile senators, some crucial details emerged about how management of the Justice Department has changed during the Bush administration." (Legal Times)

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If there's one good thing that's come out of the U.S. attorneys scandal, it's that it's shining a bright light on the Justice Department. And as a result, it's become clear that the most grossly politicized section of the department is the Civil Rights Division.

The reason is plain. As we've seen, many Republicans, and Karl Rove in particular, are obsessed with "voter fraud" -- the idea that minorities in Democratic strongholds are taking advantage of lax record systems to stuff the ballot. There's evidence that at least two of the fired U.S. attorneys were let go because they did not pursue such prosecutions. But the obsession is nothing new; it's one of the defining preoccupations of the Bush administration. The hysterical claims have led Republicans to push voter I.D. laws in several swing states -- efforts that have been backed by the White House.

It is the job of the Civil Rights Division to watchdog the voting rights of minorities. And due to the Voting Rights Act, several states cannot even enact such laws without first getting clearance from the division. So to make sure that no career staffers get in the way -- with evidence, for instance, that a voter I.D. law would disproportionately impact African Americans -- the Civil Rights Division has been gutted.

But, as McClatchy reported in detail late last week, the strategy goes beyond voter fraud. The division has made an effort to purge voter rolls while minimizing actions or programs that help register poor or minority voters, and McClatchy gave a nice rundown of the lowlights. Political appointees in the Civil Rights Division have:

-Issued advisory opinions that overstated a 2002 federal election law by asserting that it required states to disqualify new voting registrants if their identification didn't match that in computer databases, prompting at least three states to reject tens of thousands of applicants mistakenly.

-Done little to enforce a provision of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act that requires state public assistance agencies to register voters. The inaction has contributed to a 50 percent decline in annual registrations at those agencies, to 1 million from 2 million.

-Sued at least six states on grounds that they had too many people on their voter rolls. Some eligible voters were removed in the resulting purges.

The whole thing is worth a read, especially as a companion piece to The New York Times' excellent piece earlier this month on voter fraud.

So that's the big picture. As more comes out (and more will), keep that in mind.

Call it a sign of the times.

Here's a moment from this morning's White House press gaggle, after Dana Perino fielded questions about Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz:

Q Does the President ever get tired of having to express his full confidence in the people around him these days?

MS. PERINO: When you're President of the United States and you have this many folks that you are employing, it's a pretty small number that he's had to express full confidence in. All of us who serve at the pleasure of the President, if the moment he doesn't have full confidence in you, you no longer work for him. And we all take that very seriously.

"Pretty small number." You gotta love it.

Note: As a bonus, I've included Perino's rambling endorsement of Gonzales below the fold (preview: "He is our number one crime fighter.").

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Earlier this month, a federal appeals court slapped down a prosecution against a Wisconsin state bureaucrat brought by U.S. Attorney for Milwaukee Steve Biskupic. The court took the extraordinary step of reversing the conviction and freeing the bureaucrat, named Georgia Thompson, due to the simple lack of a crime. That's led to a lot of questions about whether the case, which implicated the state's Democratic governor in an election year, was brought due to political pressure.

Today, the court released (pdf) its written opinion on the case. And it wasn't any more sparing than the verbal remarks (e.g. that the evidence was "beyond thin") of the judges when they made the ruling.

The prosecution was based on a reading of the law by which "simple violations of administrative rules [by bureaucrats] would become crimes," the judges wrote. By that interpretation, "it is a federal crime for any official in state or local government to take account of political considerations when deciding how to spend public money" -- a "preposterous" idea, they wrote.

Ultimately, the prosecution drew on "the open-ended quality" of the law to charge that a crime had occurred. And the blame, the judges wrote, might very well lie with the open-ended quality of the statutes used to charge Thompson:

"This prosecution, which led to the conviction and imprisonment of a civil servant for conduct that, as far as this record shows, was designed to pursue the public interest as the employee understood it, may well induce Congress to take another look at the wisdom of enacting [such vague statutes]."
The laws, they wrote, make it "possible for prosecutors to believe, and public employees to deny, that a crime has occurred, and for both sides to act in good faith...." In other words, the judges are saying that any reasonable person would have looked at this case and seen that nothing amiss had occurred -- but it was nevertheless legally possible to bring a prosecution. For that, you could blame the law... but you could also question the prosecutor's judgment.

For his part, Biskupic has said that he brought the case "in consultation with the then-Democratic State Attorney General, and the Democratic District Attorney for Dane County" and that the decision to charge Thompson was "based solely on the facts."

The House Judiciary Committee has invited Biskupic to tell his story to Congress.

Update: TPM Reader LA writes:

You might want to note in the Thompson story that the opinion was written by Frank Easterbrook, a law-and-economics-oriented Reagan appointee, and stone genius. When I saw the "preposterous" quote, I figured he had to have written the decision, and I am so glad to be right.

CNN is reporting that Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL), the Chairman of the Republican Conference and the number three in the House Republican leadership, has said that Gonzales should resign.

CNN quotes him as saying that "[Gonzales] did not distinguish himself in the hearing... there remains a cloud over the Department... I think they would be well served by fresh leadership."