Updated Feb. 3
Scott Bloch, the former head of the Office of Special Counsel, must serve at least one month in prison on the charge of lying to Congress, a federal magistrate judge in Washington said in a ruling published Wednesday evening.
Bloch had been scheduled to be sentenced Thursday afternoon in front Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson of Washington’s federal trial court. Robinson this evening pushed back sentencing to next Monday, giving more time for the attorneys to review what she called a "significant sentencing issue."
Bloch pleaded guilty in April. His sentencing, however, has been repeatedly continued as Robinson studied whether the charge of contempt of Congress carries a one-month minimum mandatory jail sentence. The charge is rare. In one recent case in Washington, professional baseball star Miguel Tejada was sentenced to probation.
Bloch’s attorneys at Winston & Strawn, including litigation partner William Sullivan Jr., argued that Robinson had discretion to sentence Bloch to probation. Sullivan had the backing of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Leon worked out a deal with Bloch that called for probation, a fine and community service.
In her 13-page ruling [.pdf] this evening, Robinson said the dispute is a novel one, with no published opinion on whether contempt of Congress carries a one-month mandatory minimum sentence. Robinson said she found no authority to support the argument from the lawyers that the sentencing provision in the statute is discretionary. “The court therefore declines the invitation to do so,” Robinson said.
Bloch’s attorneys and federal prosecutors tried to convince Robinson that the language in the statute—which says the offense is “punishable” by imprisonment for no less than a month—means capable of being punished, not that imprisonment is mandatory. “According the term ‘punishable’ the definition requested by counsel would require that the court construe the term in a vacuum, without consideration of the entirety of the provision,” Robinson said.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission published a report in 2009 that identified contempt of Congress as one of more than 100 offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Sullivan urged Robinson to disregard the report. Prosecutors said the report was not binding on the court. Contempt of Congress carries a maximum prison term of up to one year.
There was no early word on whether Bloch will try to back out of his plea agreement. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on Robinson's ruling.
On Thursday morning, Sullivan said in an e-mail: "We are certainly disappointed in the ruling, but are gratified that the government supported our position that the statute does not require a mandatory sentence, and we will continue to pursue a just resolution to this matter."