Justice employees fight proposed office closings

None John Thys/Newscom
Three weeks after the Justice Department proposed closing four of its antitrust division field offices, affected employees are calling for congressional hearings on the matter.

The closings, along with the department's other budget-trimming proposals, are contingent on Congress, which must approve or fail to respond in order for the plans to move forward, according to attorneys who would be affected by the shuttering of the field offices in Atlanta, Dallas, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

"People here have dedicated their lives to public service, and they're simply shunted aside," said Laura Heisler, an attorney in the Philadelphia field office who has worked in the antitrust division for 30 years and has asked Congress to reconsider the closures.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agendas Agencies, has received numerous queries from constituents who would be affected by the closure of the Cleveland office, according to a spokeswoman. He is reviewing the issue.

Justice spokeswoman Gina Talamona said the 94 employees affected by the plan would be extended offers to relocate to one of the three remaining field offices in New York, Chicago or San Francisco, or to the division's Washington office.

But Heisler did not anticipate such a clean transition. "It just eviscerates the division's criminal enforcement efforts, and it's a pretty radical restructuring of what the division has historically done," she said.

"It takes a long time to develop contacts in this profession," she added. "Those relationships are not something that is transferrable to somebody in Washington. It's simply not going to happen. If we're not here, the agents won't go to somebody in Washington."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, wrote a letter on Monday to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing strong opposition to the closing of the Cleveland office. "The DOJ's plan may be penny-wise but it is certainly proud-foolish," Kucinich wrote. He also said the closing would not save money on rent, as the office is housed in a federal building.

Justice has said the closures and other cost-saving initiatives will save nearly $130 million and are in line with Holder's call to "do more with less."

In a letter to appropriators obtained by Government Executive, Justice Assistant Attorney General for Administration Lee Lofthus said the proposed closings are estimated to save the department nearly $8 million a year, beginning in fiscal 2013. Those funds would be reallocated to meet other department needs, the letter said, such as acquiring new computer data analysis software and translation tools.

That letter was addressed to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agendas Agencies. Hutchison's office confirmed receipt of the letter but declined to comment further on the matter or the effect on the Dallas closure in particular.

Attorneys in the affected field offices have argued that such reallocation cannot be considered "savings." But Talamona said Justice's goal is to "ensure sufficient funding for the department's essential public safety missions," including counterterrorism initiatives, where some of the savings would go.

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