Ex-whistle-blower protector conviction overturned

A federal judge on Wednesday overturned the conviction and monthlong jail sentence of a former government whistle-blower protector who pleaded guilty to keeping information from congressional investigators.

Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that a magistrate judge "abused her discretion" by refusing to let President George W. Bush's former special counsel, Scott Bloch, withdraw his guilty plea with the support of prosecutors. Both sides said they reached a plea agreement with the understanding that Bloch's plea in April 2010 to a misdemeanor count of contempt of Congress would allow him the possibility of probation.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson ruled the plea required that he spend at least a month in jail. Bloch appealed her ruling to Lamberth, who is the chief of the U.S. District Court in Washington, and the chief's ruling sends the case back to Robinson with the guilty plea wiped out.

Lamberth called the case "a situation in which lawyering has fallen short," suggesting that attorneys on both sides should have realized he could face mandatory jail time after reading the law. It says contempt of Congress is punishable by "imprisonment in a common jail for not less than one month nor more than twelve months."

"However, the relevant question is what defendant believed when he pled guilty, however inexplicable that belief," Lamberth wrote. The judge found that Bloch would not have pleaded guilty if he had understood he faced mandatory jail time.

Bush appointed Bloch to head the federal agency responsible for protecting the rights of federal workers and ensuring that government whistle-blowers are not subjected to reprisals.

But Bloch was accused of retaliating against his own employees and closing whistle-blower cases without investigating them. While he was under investigation for those allegations, Bloch had his government computer and those of two of his staffers wiped clean of information in December 2006 by a private computer repair company, Geeks on Call.

The House Reform Committee questioned Bloch about the computer scrub in March 2008, and he told the panel that it was to address a problem that caused his computer to crash. Bloch admitted as part of his guilty plea that he withheld information from the congressional staff and that before he ordered the wipe of the computers, he understood the procedure would make it virtually impossible to recover deleted files or e-mails.

His sentencing was scheduled nine times but repeatedly delayed in a dispute that surprisingly paired the usual courtroom rivals — the prosecutor and defendant — against the judge. They pointed out that others who had pleaded guilty to the charge had received probation, including baseball star Miguel Tejada two years ago. But Robinson was unmoved and sentenced him to a month's incarceration. Bloch has been free while he appealed her decision.