Holder: No furloughs at Justice Department

Attorney General Eric Holder told nearly 60,000 employees on Wednesday that the Justice Department (DOJ) would not have to issue furloughs.

But Holder warned DOJ employees that the steps the department is taking this fiscal year would largely not be possible in fiscal year 2014, meaning that furloughs could come as soon as September if Congress does not act.

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“Few, if any, of the extraordinary actions we are taking now 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,” wrote Holder in a department-wide memo on Wednesday.

The cancellation of furloughs comes as the House on Wednesday authorized the DOJ’s reprogramming of $313 million to help stave off automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, which would have forced the department to furlough 59,550 employees. The Senate approved the reprogramming earlier this week.

In the department memo, Holder alluded to the key role that the DOJ, which oversees the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), has played in investigating the recent bombings of the Boston Marathon, which killed 3 people and injured more than 200 others.

Holder warned that sequester cuts in the next fiscal year would severely hamper the DOJ’s ability to protect the country.

“The department’s mission and its employees are inextricably linked: We cannot fulfill our mission without our employees,” wrote Holder. “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.

“That’s why I have acted to reduce the negative impacts on the department’s mission and staff by avoiding furloughs this fiscal year, though l remain concerned about the long-term impacts on our criminal justice community if Congress does not act to restore the department’s funding.”

Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller have pleaded constantly over the last two months for Congress to put a stop to sequestration, saying that it would dramatically hurt the DOJ and the FBI.

The reprogrammed money will help the FBI, ATF, the U.S. Marshals, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other agencies under the DOJ’s umbrella.

Holder cautioned DOJ employees that the reprogrammed money would not stop the sequester from affecting other areas of the department such as its contract spending levels and an ongoing hiring freeze that prevents it from backfilling employee vacancies.

Holder also wrote on Wednesday to thank the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittee heads, responding to Rep. Frank Wolf’s (R-Va.) concerns that DOJ furloughs may have been caused by the department’s decision to purchase the Thomson prison in Illinois last year for $165 million.   

Earlier in the day, Wolf, who is the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the DOJ’s budget, wrote to Holder with news of the reprogrammed funds, while also criticizing the recent prison purchase.

“Had the department not taken the rash step last year of purchasing the Thomson Prison, those resources would have been available to cushion the impact of the sequestration, and reduce the need to cut into other critical law enforcement and national security requirements,” Wolf wrote.

But Holder took issue with Wolf’s remarks, writing to the senior lawmaker that the money used to buy the prison — a decision President Obama directly approved — was not connected to the operating budget of the DOJ and “in no way caused the potential harm that you and your colleagues have helped to alleviate.”

A spokesperson for the DOJ said the prison was purchased to avoid overcrowding in the federal prison system, especially at high security prisons. The Thomson prison will add 2,600 more beds to the federal prison system, according to the DOJ.

The reprogrammed funds for DOJ are made up of $239 million in de-obligated and expired FBI salary and expenses funding, $12 million in deobligated and expired ATF salary and expenses funding, $2.6 million in election monitoring program balances, $13.9 million in legal education balances within the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the transfer of $45 million within the U.S. Marshals Service.