GAO hires private lawyers

The agency's top managers have hired a large Washington law firm that has experience in labor relations cases

Comptroller General David Walker, the top official at the Government Accountability Office, said the audit agency has a lot of excellent attorneys on its staff. What they lack, he said, is experience in labor relations cases.

For that reason, GAO’s top managers have hired a large Washington law firm to help GAO with its own labor relations case: the upcoming legal proceedings related to GAO employees’ effort to form a union. The firm, Venable, will represent the agency’s management before GAO’s Personnel Appeals Board, which will negotiate the details of a union representation election with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE).

GAO plans to use in-house attorneys to the maximum extent possible in the case, and it will rely on Venable for a minimum of 100 hours and a best estimate of 250 hours of work on the case, Walker said.

Venable will be paid on an hourly basis, but a GAO spokesman did not say what the hourly rate would be. Walker said the best estimate cost is less than the annual compensation for a senior-level government attorney, which according to the Office of Personnel Management’s salary figures is between $111,676 and $145,400.

GAO’s decision to seek outside counsel has delayed the process of developing a format and schedule for a union representation election. At a recent meeting among representatives of GAO’s management, the PAB and the union, GAO officials announced that they needed the assistance of outside legal counsel before proceeding with election negotiations. The announcement brought the meeting to a halt.

GAO officials gave no indication of when they would be ready to resume the talks, although Walker said GAO wants to “move the process along as expeditiously as possible.”

When IFPTE filed a petition May 8 seeking to represent GAO’s analysts, union officials said they expected an election to take place in late spring or early summer. They now say an election might not happen until after Labor Day.

“I think it’s going to be a very long, drawn-out thing,” IFPTE spokesman Jamie Horwitz said.

GAO’s management plans to challenge the eligibility of about a third of the employees who are seeking a representation election, a move that will further slow the proceedings, said Julie Clark, general counsel for IFPTE.

GAO alleges that the 461 employees in question — analysts in Band II B of GAO’s new pay-banding system — are ineligible for union representation. In a statement, GAO said “some of those staff members should not be included in the bargaining unit sought by the union, given their status as supervisors or confidential employees.”

Horwitz described the employees as “just coordinators who lack any kind of hiring and firing authority.”

Jason Miller contributed to this story.

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