DOJ seeks to keep identity of office partner in affair with former U.S. Attorney secret

By Record News | Apr 16, 2019

NEW YORK CITY – Dodging a deadline to identify a former U.S. attorney who engaged in misconduct and his intimate office partner, U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman pleaded to keep the woman’s name secret in federal court in New York. 

Assistant U.S. attorney Arastu Chaudhury moved for reconsideration of a disclosure order on April 8, writing that she didn’t engage in misconduct. 

Chaudhury wrote that she shouldn’t be held to the same level of accountability as the former U.S. attorney. 

District Judge Vernon Broderick had entered the order on March 11, requiring Berman to provide both names to Zoe Tillman of Buzzfeed by April 12. 

The motion to reconsider the woman’s identification delayed identification of the man, whose name didn’t appear in the record as of April 15. 

Tillman asked the Department of Justice for its misconduct report in May 2017, after the inspector general posted a summary. The summary described a relationship between a U.S. attorney and a supervisor that created an appearance of partiality and a difficult environment. 

The summary stated he admitted the allegations and retired from federal service. 

A DOJ information officer sent the report to Tillman but redacted the names. 

Tillman then filed an administrative appeal, asserting public interest in knowing if the pair misused funds, abused power, or gave each other preferential treatment. 

An administrative appeal officer affirmed the information officer, rejecting Tillman’s request as an unwarranted invasion of privacy. 

Tillman sued for an injunction at the Southern District of New York in October 2017. 

Chaudhury moved for summary judgment last March, writing that the misconduct was unrelated to a core job function. He argued that the supervisor was not found culpable and her rank was not high enough to outweigh her privacy. 

Buzzfeed lawyers answered that the affair was so open and ongoing that special agents and members of federal court discussed it. They wrote that employees said it created a hostile environment because they couldn’t report issues with the supervisor. 

Judge Broderick found the misconduct could hardly be considered personal. He wrote that it caused employees to feel powerless, embarrassed, and distracted. 

He wrote that the information would shed light on misconduct of managers and its effects on their responsibilities and on office operations. 

Chaudhury’s reconsideration motion challenged the order as manifest injustice, arguing that the wrongdoing was the U.S. attorney’s conduct alone. 

“In light of her position as a subordinate of the former U.S. attorney, she could not violate the Department of Justice policy regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, by virtue of their relationship,” Chaudhury wrote. “Rather, she could have potentially claimed that she was the victim of sexual harassment and conceivably could still do so.” 

According to Chaudhury, the woman characterized the relationship as consensual and never described herself as a victim. 

He wrote that nonetheless, the respective positions of authority undermine the consensual nature of a relationship between supervisor and subordinate. 

To bolster his argument, he attached a policy the department adopted for similar situations last November. 

Under it, the U.S. attorney would have notified an associate deputy attorney general and the executive office of U.S. attorneys of the relationship.  

The new policy states that an actual or apparent conflict might result when a supervisor or manager engages in a romantic or intimate relationship with a subordinate. Such relationships can lead to the loss of objectivity necessary to make decisions fairly, equitably, and credibly. And, emotional dynamics could make a supervisor vulnerable to abusing authority to advance a relationship rather than the department’s interests.

“The very nature of romantic or intimate relationships in the workplace makes the potential for adverse complications unpredictable,” it reads.

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