The Justice Department’s environment division is closing its San Francisco office.
Agency leaders have informed employees that the California outpost will be shuttered next fall to cut costs, a move that has stirred discontent among career staff in the Environment and Natural Resources Division.
According to a document shared with E&E News, the closure will save ENRD $7 million over a 10-year lease term. The lease for the downtown office space expires in 2020, and DOJ plans to terminate it 11 months early, around Sept. 30, 2019.
Fourteen permanent employees are stationed in the San Francisco office, most of them enforcement attorneys who focus on prosecuting environmental violations. They have until Feb. 1 to decide whether they’re willing to move to DOJ offices in Denver or Washington, D.C.
"The division doesn’t have a ton of field offices, so it’s striking that they’re deciding to close one of them," said former ENRD attorney Justin Pidot, now at the University of Denver.
Most of ENRD’s nearly 600 employees are in D.C. In addition to the San Francisco office, a large bureau in Denver hosts 55 employees, Sacramento hosts three and a dozen more attorneys are scattered around the country.
Division leaders told staff that closing the California office would help establish Denver as DOJ’s "western hub" for environmental work. The agency will pay relocation costs for employees who opt to move.
Asked about the planned closure today, DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said ENRD and the Justice Management Division carefully analyzed costs and opportunities for greater efficiency.
"After careful review, it was determined that substantial savings could be achieved by closing the San Francisco field office and consolidating both staff and space in Denver," he said in a statement.
Jeffrey Wood, who was acting chief of the division until this week, visited the San Francisco office last month to discuss the plans in person, Hornbuckle said.
The news, announced internally just weeks before Trump appointee Jeffrey Bossert Clark was sworn in as ENRD chief yesterday, has bruised morale within the division.
"People were really caught off guard," said Kelly Johnson, a high-ranking ENRD official in the George W. Bush administration. "But having said that, everyone knew their lease was coming up."
DOJ has submitted a Congressional Relocation Report and notified members of Congress who represent San Francisco: Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, all Democrats.
The plan has already been approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
ENRD originally opened the San Francisco office in response to the travel demands of a large enforcement docket in the West. Nine of the attorneys there now focus on environmental enforcement, much of it related to EPA Region 9, which is headquartered just a half-mile away.
The division’s website notes that the San Francisco office and other outposts "allow for more efficient and cost-effective Section participation in the routinely complex and prolonged litigation originating in these EPA Regional Offices."
John Cruden, head of ENRD under President Obama, praised the office’s work in an email today.
"The ENRD San Francisco office has long been a stalwart of environmental protection, serving and litigating throughout the geographical area," he said.
He added that the office is staffed by experienced litigators with a successful track record under many administrations. "I honor the attorneys who have served so ably in that office," he wrote.
Former ENRD attorney Kate Konschnik, now at Duke University, said closing the office could hamper critical on-the-ground work performed by the enforcement attorneys handling EPA cases.
"Region 9 is the most far-flung region of all of the regions," she said. "That was the reason for having a field office there. Because whenever the budget is tight, travel is the first thing cut in the Justice budget. If you have restricted travel, that means those farther-away places are much less likely to be visited."
Field office attorneys often appear in federal court, make site visits related to cases, and conduct in-person interviews and depositions. They also engage with other federal and state officials in the West.
"All of the regional offices, they’re useful because they make it easier for DOJ lawyers to interact more directly with the regional attorneys in counterparts," Pidot said.
Sidley Austin LLP attorney Justin Savage, also a former ENRD attorney, noted that future travel expenses would undercut some of the savings from closing the San Francisco space.
"There’s always been an active enforcement docket or affirmative docket in San Francisco, and then the question is whether there’s a cost savings to having people travel out from that office from Denver or D.C. to San Francisco to work their cases," he said.
He acknowledged, however, that he hasn’t seen the numbers.
"It’s appropriate for government officials to make cost-based decisions, but at the end of the day, the question is, does this save money or not?" he said.
The idea of closing field offices has been percolating for years within the division.
Tom Sansonetti, ENRD chief during the Bush administration, considered closing the San Francisco office during his tenure but factored in increased travel costs and decided it wasn’t worth it.
Johnson, who was his deputy, noted that Sansonetti’s previous post as Interior Department solicitor made him a "big fan" of regional offices.
"So for Tom, it would really have had to make cost savings," she said. "I think the market has fundamentally changed since then. The costs are probably a lot more significant for San Francisco than they were 12 years ago."
Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder closed four field offices for DOJ’s antitrust division in 2013.
Crunching the numbers
ENRD leaders broke down the numbers in a Q&A document distributed to staff.
It says office space in San Francisco would likely cost $80 per square foot if the division sought a new lease, compared with the low $30s per square foot in Denver. Plus, the annual operating cost per employee in San Francisco already exceeds $25,000 and could reach $40,000, compared with $17,000 in Denver.
ENRD has been especially budget-constrained lately because of office moves in D.C. and flat appropriations from Congress.
Some staff might be able to stay in San Francisco. The Q&A document notes that it may be possible to secure temporary workspace for some employees within another federal agency’s San Francisco office, but such an arrangement would be subject to regular review and could be scrapped in the future.
Ultimately, any employee who doesn’t move to D.C. or Denver could be let go, the document says.
"I would hope that for good attorneys who can’t relocate, they don’t lose that experience and expertise and the relationships they have," Johnson said.
ENRD stressed that it doesn’t want to lose any staff from the San Francisco closure. "We do not want to lose folks by any means, including through early retirement," the Q&A says. But others are worried about the impact.
"It certainly means they’re going to lose people because people aren’t going to make the move, which means the department will lose expertise," Pidot said. "If you’re feeling cynical, it provides an opportunity for the new [administration] people to hire those replacements, or just not fill them."