The writer is the U.S. attorney for Nebraska.
All of us in the federal criminal justice system have felt the devastating effects of the federal budget apocalypse called sequestration.
As federal fiscal year 2013 rapidly draws to a close on Sept. 30, Congress has yet to pass a fiscal year 2013 budget. Our federal government limps along with funding government through continuing resolutions. Continuing resolutions remind me of law school days when we eagerly awaited our student loan checks so we could continue to study for another semester but were always uncertain about where or when we would get our next check.
Although that method may work for students, it surely is no way to run the government of the most powerful nation in the world.
Out of a total Department of Justice sequestration budget cut of more than $1.6 billion for March 2013, the United States Attorney community comprised of 94 districts had to absorb a $170 million cut. This was accomplished through hiring freezes, cost-of-living freezes, reduced travel and training, employee attrition rates and some leftover unspent money from other categories. It is important also to note that the Justice Department includes the FBI, ATF and United States Marshals, as well as the federal prisons.
How did uncertainty and sequestration affect the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nebraska?
We have been unable to replace any assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSAs) or support staff who have left the office due to attrition. Our special assistant U.S. attorney on a two-year loan from Immigration and Customs Enforcement was recalled to his agency, which left a void for the remainder of our AUSAs to fill.
Nebraska ranks eighth in the nation in the number of federal immigration cases filed. When you consider that the border states represent the largest number of immigration cases, a top-eight ranking means our office is very busy with immigration cases. If we are forced into furloughs for fiscal year 2014, we will have fewer staff out of an already-depleted staff to prosecute criminal and civil cases.
For the last six months of fiscal year 2013, our nonpersonnel budget has been slashed 35 percent. This has created a challenge in hiring expert witnesses and in litigation costs. Not only is our office responsible for all of the federal criminal case prosecutions, but we also defend the United States of America whenever it is sued in federal court.
For example, we must hire expert witnesses in our civil litigation involving the U.S. government as a defendant, such as medical malpractice cases involving the Veterans Administration. We consistently incur litigation costs in grand jury subpoenas of financial records, depositions or transcripts of testimony. These expenses are essential to the work that we do. Without adequate funding, our ability to work on behalf of our nation is severely hampered.
During FY 2012, more than $13.1 billion owed to the United States was collected in civil and criminal debts in areas like health care, financial and mortgage fraud and environmental fines by the United States Attorney’s Office. In Nebraska alone, more than $8.2 million was collected by our office, far in excess of our annual budget.
It does not make financial sense to risk a reduced rate of recovery from those who lie, cheat and steal from the public by slashing the personnel and resources necessary to make those criminals accountable for their dishonest behavior.
From all accounts, fiscal year 2014 is shaping up to be even worse as the DOJ will not have any unexpended funds to help cushion the sequestration. It is projected that furloughs will become the norm. As all of us know in this business, we always have an endless supply of criminal defendants so the cutbacks are certain to affect our priorities in investigation and prosecution.
In the meantime, we are committed to working harder with less in order to ensure public safety while hoping Congress puts the good of the public first and leaves sequestration only for juries and witnesses.