Winter 2014 Issue

Law and Disorder in D.C.

By Paul Shearon

The wheels of justice turn slowly. On Friday, February 7th, Mayor Gray suspended D.C.'s chief administrative law judge, Mary Oates Walker, from office for unethical behavior. The District's Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA) had charged her the day before with 19 counts of unethical behavior and her alleged accomplice, who also works for the agency, with 10 counts. A termination hearing for the Chief has now been scheduled for late-March. After a nearly two year effort by the District of Columbia's administrative law judges to expose the chief judge, combined with investigations by reporters at The Washington Post and WJLA, the gears of the justice system finally moved. Why did it take so long?

In early 2012, administrative law judges employed by the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) were so deeply concerned with the competency and ethical standards of Chief Judge Mary Oates Walker that they wrote and signed their names to an unprecedented letter of complaint addressed to Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Member Phil Mendelson.

In the same time period, WJLA, Channnel 7, aired a story about a no-bid $43,000 contract Judge Walker had awarded to her business partner's fiancé to move courtroom furniture. The business partner, Kiyo Oden Tyson, also had recently been hired by Walker to be the agency's general counsel. Later the Post reported on controversies at OAH.

Despite the first-hand accounts from judges and news accounts of self-dealing, conflicts-of-interest, and unethical behavior, no real investigation or actions were ever taken against the Chief. Instead, the city's judges were harassed and retaliated against by Walker for coming forward. The details of her retaliatory tactics were outlined in the BEGA report released on Thursday.

The judges employed at OAH know more about the ins and outs of DC government than almost anyone. These are judges who hold daily hearings on regulatory matters, zoning disputes and district rules and laws related to a range of government agencies and operations. However, as individual judges they are barred from speaking out about the workings of the court. Early on, the judges realized they needed to do more than just write a letter, they felt their only option at having a voice was to organize a union.

The judges turned to the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) where I serve as Secretary-Treasurer and which represents engineers along with many highly-skilled government workers such as researchers at the Congressional Research Service, auditors at GAO, NASA scientists and more than 2,000 administrative law judges across the nation.

When these local judges, unsolicited, walked into our national office in Washington, I naively thought this union campaign would be a piece of cake. The judges had real issues with their employer, 75 percent of the judges employed by the agency were willing to sign union authorization cards and the District's labor laws were on their side.

How wrong I was - nothing was quick or simple. We filed for election with a supermajority of union authorization cards. On the books, the law looks very straightforward. Once we filed for an election, the District's Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) should have held an election 30 days later. It's now been more than a year. Who would have ever guessed that in liberal labor-friendly D.C., the Chief Judge would be allowed to use taxpayer dollars, running into the six figures, to employ Venable, a private law firm specializing in union deterrence, to bust our organizing effort?

Who would have guessed that she could spend these funds without the council or the mayor's approval? Want to guess where she got the money? She used Medicaid reimbursements by the federal government to the District of Columbia without anyone's authorization.

While we were waiting for the election to be scheduled we had multiple meetings with DC officials, including Mayor Gray, regarding our concerns, but we only received lip service and amicus briefs. They refused to intervene and kept waiting for the legal system to run its course, but the system is damaged. The Chief Judge should never have been allowed to use public funds and resources to cover-up her crimes.

We didn't know it for quite awhile and we're sure it's only a coincidence, but the head of PERB at the time we filed, later revealed that he was interviewing for a job with Venable.

Even without an election, which would have formalized IFPTE's right to represent the District's administrative law judges employed at OAH, we have fought for them in the courts and elsewhere.

People often find it surprising that a judge, a lawyer, a scientist, engineer or other professional would need a union. These District judges are a case study on why workers, including professionals and government employees, need to band together and why they often need outside help and guidance. The wheels of justice turn slowly - often they need some oil.


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