'Public safety will suffer a setback': U.S. attorney says furloughs will affect citizens

News-DemocratJuly 5, 2013 

— Public safety could "suffer a setback" if the U.S. Justice Department follows through on plans to force its employees -- including thousands of FBI special agents, deputy U.S. marshals and assistant U.S. attorneys -- to take up to 16 unpaid furlough days in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, according to Steve Wigginton, the U.S. attorney for Southern Illinois.

Reserve funds and the repurposing of some federal dollars enabled the Justice Department to avert furloughs when the budget sequester for the last seven months of 2013 took effect on March 1.

But the Justice Department reserves have since been spent down. That means almost everyone in Wigginton's office will be forced to take more than three weeks of unpaid furloughs when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, said Wigginton, the only person in his office who won't be forced to take unpaid leave.

"What the citizens of Southern Illinois will see is a decrease in the number of investigations and prosecutions," he said. "They will see a decrease in the number of individuals that are brought to justice. Public safety will suffer a setback."

Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group advocating responsible fiscal responsibility, said the sequester-based cuts shouldn't be used.

"It is a meat cleaver, and it doesn't distinguish between the bad and the good," Bixby said. "It has the effect of cutting some programs that people care about and that are effective."

Case in point: the letter sent Wednesday by Robert Gay Gutherie, the president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, to the top Republican and Democrat seated on the House subcommitte that oversees the Justice Department.

Gutherie urged both congressmen to keep the Justice Department's budget at $2 billion and avoid further budget cuts.

Otherwise, "a reduction in resources will not only inspire more criminal behavior, but fail to redress harm that has been brought upon thousands of Americans," Gutherie wrote. "The same is true for tax prosecutions. Backing down in our efforts now would be foolish and reduce the fundamental benefit of deterrence."

Defense Department agencies are supposed to feel the sequester's worst pain; half the $85 billion in sequester cuts are coming out of Pentagon spending. Nearly 4,500 civilian workers at Scott Air Force Base are set to begin the 11 days of unpaid leave beginning Monday.

Sequestration-based cuts will only worsen in 2014 unless Congress and the White House reach a deal. That's because the value of agency budget cuts is projected to rise to $92 billion. Exacerbating the pain: $35 billion in cuts that were set to occur in 2013 won't actually take place until 2014, according to the business website Bloomberg.com.

Congress can still avert a second wave of sequester-based budget cuts. But that would require lawmakers to approve a bi-partisan deal to raise federal taxes or to cut spending as a part of new budget -- two unlikely scenarios based on the polarized atmosphere in Washington, D.C., according to Bixby.

Sequestration "is the law now," he said. "Congress would have to act to change it. They haven't been very good at working out agreements lately on budget issues."

Meanwhile, as the money dries up, Wigginton's assistant U.S. attorneys continue to juggle record-setting caseloads while dealing with the impact of earlier budget cuts and ballooning responsibilities set by Congress.

"They've increased the scope and the breadth of the U.S. attorney's power," Wigginton said. "But at the same time they're defunding the U.S. attorney's offices."

A Justice Department statement sent to the News-Democrat confirmed the agency units, including the FBI, U.S. Marshal's Service and U.S. attorney's office, face the prospect of unpaid furloughs after Oct. 1 but declined to state the number of furlough days that are expected.

"We are assessing funding needs for Fiscal Year 2014, which begins October 1st, and we will communicate with staff about possible furloughs when appropriate," wrote DOJ spokeswoman Adora Jenkins.

Don Slazinik, the U.S. marshal for Southern Illinois, said he has not been notified about furloughs hitting his office.

"Nobody's told us for sure how many days we'd have to take off or when that would be," Slazinik said. "That hasn't been a discussion we've had yet."

At the start of March, Wigginton's office suffered a 4 percent budget cut from its $6 million annual budget because of the budget sequester. If a sequester is still planned for 2014, then his office will suffer another 15 percent cut, he said.

What especially rankles Wigginton is the fact that his office actually makes money for the federal government. In 2012, the U.S. attorneys office for Southern Illinois pulled in an average of $24 million in fines and settlements, versus an annual budget of $6 million.

Wigginton's office is a busy place these days since it oversees contractor fraud prosecutions coming out of Scott Air Force Base, which is the home to the United States Transportation Command.

"With fewer attorneys here and fewer legal assistants and money to finance those cases, I'm going to have fewer options to pursue," he said. "If I'm going up against a defense contractor or a pharmaceutical company, they're hiring the best defense attorneys in the United States, they're hiring the largest law firms."

The original federal budget sequester took effect March 1 with the aim of cutting $85 billion from federal spending in 2013 through a host of austerity measures, with the most prominent being the furloughing of civilian Defense Department workers, including 4,500 at Scott Air Force Base, in Mascoutah.

Loud protests later led Congress to rescind the unpaid furloughs for a variety of jobs considered "essential," including federal meat inspectors, prison corrections officers and air traffic controllers.

Meanwhile, Scott's civilian workers are getting set to take the first of 11 unpaid furlough days between July 8 and Sept. 30.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville toured Scott to get an understanding of the furloughs on the Scott workforce, said Kevin Kern, Enyart's chief of staff.

"It's not a good situation," Kern said. "By the same token, these different units have planned how the sequester days will be taken. So while no one's happy, people are bracing themselves and planning accordingly."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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