Washington, DC — A federal agency has hired the nation’s top union-busting law firm but refuses to say for how much money or whether stimulus funds were used to pay the retainer, according to a summary judgment motion filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in its lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. Normally a labor union ally, the Obama administration is paying a firm specializing in what is euphemistically called “union avoidance” or “preventive labor relations.”
This strange bedfellows arrangement arises out of an obscure federal agency called the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) which retained the high-priced law firm Jackson Lewis LLP this summer to defend it against charges that the IBWC fired its own general counsel in retaliation for reporting agency waste, fraud and abuse. PEER represents the now ex-general counsel, Robert McCarthy, in his whistleblower complaint before the U.S. Merit System Protection Board (MSPB).
In November, 2009 PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the retainer agreement IBWC signed with Jackson Lewis and the source of funds for payment. Initially, IBWC refused the PEER request on the grounds that it would reveal “trade secrets” about Jackson Lewis which counts Halliburton among its corporate clients. A month and a half later in response to a PEER administrative appeal, IBWC added a new reason, claiming it is covered by “attorney-client privilege.”
In early January PEER filed a federal suit to force release of the information. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department failed to answer the complaint within the required 30-day deadline. PEER is asking for an immediate court ruling in its favor. “There are no legitimate grounds for withholding this very basic data about how taxpayer funds are being spent,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Federal regulations require every agency to publicly report how much each is spending on outside private counsel and for precisely what reason.”
McCarthy was removed on July 31, 2009, three days after reporting mismanagement that threatens the safety of millions of border residents, the intended beneficiaries of a bungled $220 million Recovery Act flood control program. Bill Ruth, appointed by President Bush as IBWC Commissioner in late 2008, fired McCarthy and hired Jackson Lewis to defend the agency. Ruth was finally replaced by an Obama appointee, Edward Drusina, on January 19, 2010.
In the McCarthy case, Jackson Lewis has filed a furious welter of motions and counter-motions – all on the taxpayers’ dime. PEER anticipates receiving documents concerning the firm’s arrangement with the agency soon but not likely before McCarthy’s MSPB hearing on February 11 in El Paso, Texas.
“The IBWC has a history of boondoggles and this appears to be yet another sorry chapter,” Ruch added. “The new Commissioner could put an immediate stop to this farce, but for now the clock – and the billable hours – will keep running.”