Justice plans to cut four antitrust division field offices, employee relocation time

As part of a larger initiative to cut department spending by more than $130 million, the Justice Department earlier this month proposed closing four of its regional antitrust field offices.

In a press release, the department announced its intention to close antitrust offices in Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas and Philadelphia and relocate the 94 affected employees to its remaining field offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco "in order to provide staffing resources to larger investigations," as well as to the division's headquarters in Washington.

"All affected employees will be offered comparable positions in remaining division offices," Gina Talamona, deputy director of public affairs for the Justice Department, told Government Executive.

Despite the fact that the remaining field offices are in regions that often command a higher rent and, according to the Office of Personnel Management, higher locality pay for government employees, the closings are still expected to save the department $8 million.

As the Justice Department plans to relocate the antitrust employees, it also is proposing another cost-saving measure that will cut paid employee relocation time in half, reducing the number of days the department will pay for temporary housing from 120 to 60. This initiative comes from the Attorney General's Advisory Council for Savings and Efficiencies, which projects savings of more than $10 million annually for the department. It would apply to all of the employees from the offices slated to close, should they accept jobs in one of the remaining field locations.

All proposals must be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee before taking effect, and there is no timetable yet on the field office closings.

It is the department's intention to offer buyouts and early retirement plans later this year to antitrust employees, according to Talamona. The last round of buyouts in the antitrust division was in January, when 31 employees accepted packages.

"The Department of Justice is seeking ways to do more with less while we maintain our commitment to our critical law enforcement mission and our most important public safety priorities," said Attorney General Eric Holder, in the press release.

Such efforts are provoking the ire of the department's antitrust attorneys, some of whom are unable or unwilling to relocate.

"They made no effort to see if they could consolidate their office space with other DoJ litigating components in order to protect employees' jobs," one division employee who declined to be identified for fear of retribution told Government Executive.

"They told us that they didn't expect all of us to transfer," a different support staff member from an affected field office said. "I'm a taxpayer just like everyone else. I want the government to save money every way they can. But I don't see how [this would]."

Employees argue the closings also will serve as a major hindrance to consumers in those regions, particularly the South, seeking protection from corporations that violate the Sherman Antitrust Act.

"By closing both of the Southern offices, that population in the South has been abandoned, and much of the criminal enforcement program eroded," the division employee said.

Maps of antitrust coverage on the department's website show that the four field offices on the chopping block currently oversee a combined 19 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and parts of Michigan and New Jersey. The department has promised, however, that the antitrust division's presence in those regions will not be affected.

"Our vigorous enforcement is going to continue across the country," Talamona said, pointing to the fact that regional U.S. Attorneys' offices can physically file lawsuits for the division.

Among its other proposed savings initiatives, Justice plans to eliminate its Drug Enforcement Administration's Mobile Enforcement Teams and reassign the 145 affected positions to other roles, which is estimated to save $39 million. Numerous sub-regional offices also will be consolidated to reduce the department's physical footprint, at savings of several hundred thousand dollars each.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly paraphrased Gina Talamona as stating that U.S. Attorneys' offices are allowing consumers to file antitrust complaints. Talamona was referring to the fact that U.S. Attorneys' offices nationwide sometimes physically file lawsuits for the antitrust division.

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