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Justice Department lawyers say they’ll quit if regional offices close

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Dozens of career antitrust lawyers at the Justice Department are likely to quit if the department closes four regional offices as part of budget-cutting measures, according to several of the veteran attorneys.

Department officials this month announced plans to close four regional offices of the department’s antitrust division, in Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas and Philadelphia, and to move 94 lawyers and support staff members to offices in Chicago, New York and San Francisco and division headquarters in Washington. The plans would allow the department to consolidate operations and focus on larger criminal investigations, and officials vowed to pay relocation costs for lawyers and support staff willing to move.

But career antitrust lawyers affected by the plans said that they were caught off guard and that they believe the plans will result in de facto layoffs as colleagues decide to leave their jobs because they are unwilling or unable to move to larger cities.

“There aren’t a lot of people who’ve been with the division a long time who can pick up and move,” said an antitrust lawyer based in the Philadelphia office. “Many people have families and spouses with jobs where they’re already located. And there’s no assurances that in two years there won’t be further cuts, and then we’ll lose a job we picked up and moved for.”

Veteran antitrust lawyers from all four targeted offices contacted The Washington Post and asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal by Justice Department officials. Concerned lawyers have also sent letters to lawmakers detailing their concerns, but opted not to sign their names on those messages for the same reason.

In announcing the plans, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that consolidating office space “complies with President Obama’s order to dispose of unneeded federal real estate, which saves American taxpayer dollars.”

Obama last year ordered agencies to cut $8 billion worth of building costs by the end of fiscal 2012. Closing the offices would save Justice $8 million annually as part of Holder’s broader plans to cut $130 million in operational costs, the department said. In anticipation of deeper cuts, Justice has implemented a hiring freeze and spending cuts for department-sponsored conferences.

Other agencies anticipating budget cuts also are consolidating office space, canceling programs and trimming staff. In recent weeks, congressional appropriators have warned that some of the nation’s financial regulatory agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, may have to furlough employees to fulfill budget cuts.

At least 23 agencies — including the departments of Agriculture, Education, Commerce, Interior and Labor; the Smithsonian Institution; and the Government Printing Office — are offering buyouts or laying off workers. Other agencies are scrapping long-planned projects and programs. At the Social Security Administration, officials plan to save money by ending the mailing of benefits estimates, while the General Services Administration is abandoning a multimillion-dollar renovation of its downtown Washington headquarters in order to complete similar construction projects for the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.

Lawyers at the four offices have spent decades prosecuting companies that violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Dallas regional office scored a $500 million fine in an international vitamins case and handled the only cases prosecuted as part of fraud and bribery investigations of Hurricane Katrina reconstruction projects. Lawyers in the Philadelphia office said they obtained a $134 million after-trial fine, one of the division’s largest.

In Atlanta, one prosecutor said his office collects about $20 million in fines each year on an annual budget of just $2 million.

“If we cost $20 million a year and collected $2 million a year, you’d have a good case for closing our office,” the prosecutor said. “But if IBM had an office that cost it $2 million a year and it collected $20 million a year, I dare say IBM wouldn’t close that office.”

Gina Talamona, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the consolidation would save the department money and add staff members to larger investigations.

But lawyers in Atlanta and Dallas said their smaller fraud cases often more directly affect American consumers.

“Individual consumers have unquestionably suffered more direct financial harm from local conspiracies that raised the price of gas, increased the price of bread and milk, and raised the price of propane than they ever suffered from the air cargo, marine hose, or municipal bond investigations,” a Dallas-based lawyer said in an e-mail.

Most insulting, some said, is that the division is hiring new recruits in New York and paying hefty relocation costs despite the department-wide hiring freeze.

But antitrust lawyers based in the New York office “are not going to go down to Alabama, and San Francisco isn’t going to go down to Texas to work on a case,” an Atlanta-based lawyer said. “And someone from New York can’t go down to a grand jury in Dallas and prevail. They just don’t know the people and know how to do the cases.”

Talamona disagreed, vowing that “enforcement will continue everywhere.”

By law, the Justice Department must notify Congress of the proposed changes. Aides for the House and Senate appropriations committees said they are reviewing the proposed cuts but could not yet comment on the details.

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