No Furloughs at Justice

The Justice Department headquarters in Washington. The Justice Department headquarters in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP

This story has been updated.

The Justice Department will not have to furlough any employees this fiscal year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced in a memorandum to personnel.

“After careful review of our current financial situation and the additional funding we received in the final FY 2013 bill, combined with aggressive steps to freeze hiring and cut contracting and other costs, I am able to announce that the department will not need to furlough any employees this fiscal year due to sequestration,” Holder said in the April 24 memo to employees.

In addition, congressional appropriators this week allowed Justice to shift money within its budget to help avoid furloughs through Sept. 30.

Holder said the department still continues to make “difficult choices” on budget cuts, warning that the actions taken to avoid furloughs “do not negate the fact that the more than $1.6 billion sequestration reduction will have significant negative effects on the department and the criminal justice community this year.” The attorney general emphasized that the reprieve only applies to fiscal 2013, saying that “few, if any, of the extraordinary actions we are now taking to avoid furloughs will be available again next year, and thus furloughs are a distinct possibility at the beginning of the next fiscal year if sequestration levels continue.”

The department cannot accomplish its mission without its employees, Holder said. “And as the recent events have made clear, we need Department of Justice employees on the job to respond to emergencies and safeguard the American people,” Holder wrote, alluding to last week’s terrorist attack in Boston.

Holder also wrote to leaders of the appropriations subcommittees that granted the department’s request to transfer funds to cover salaries, thanking them for their help in avoiding furloughs. In the letter to Rep. Frank Wolf, chairman of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee, Holder addressed the lawmaker’s criticism of the administration’s decision to buy Thomson Correctional Center last year from the state of Illinois. “I must take issue with your repeated contention that the acquisition of the Thomson prison has somehow placed the department in this financial situation,” Holder wrote, of the $165 million purchase. “As you know, the buying of Thomson was accomplished through the use of funds unconnected to the operating budget of this department and in no way caused the potential harm that you and your colleagues have helped to alleviate.”

Wolf had included a handwritten note to Holder at the bottom of his letter approving the department’s reprogramming request. “You really created a mess with your bailing out the state of Ill [sic] with the Thomson prison purchase,” the Virginia lawmaker scribbled. “This will continue to create problems for the Justice Dept., especially the employees.”

Wolf issued a sharply-worded response to Holder on Thursday. “With all due respect to the attorney general, as chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee, I know that all of the funds spent last year to acquire Thomson -- over the direct objections of Congress -- could have instead been used to alleviate furloughs this year,” Wolf said in a statement. “The department used $14 million from Bureau of Prisons operational accounts and $151 million from the Assets Forfeiture Fund to purchase Thomson Prison. Every dollar of those amounts could have instead been made available this year through reprogramming to mitigate furlough impacts.”

The department bought the prison in October “in the interest of public safety to help alleviate the critical problem of overcrowding in our federal prisons, particularly our high security prisons,” said a Justice spokesperson. The prison has 2,600 beds, adding to the federal government’s space, and buying Thomson was cheaper than building a new facility, according to the department.

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