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A bipartisan coalition of Washington, D.C.-area congressional legislators has sent a letter to new Attorney General John Ashcroft urging he reverse long-standing Justice Department policy and pay its 9,100 lawyers overtime. “The Justice Department should lead by example,” read the letter, primarily drafted by Congressman Jim Moran, D-Va. “Considering that it enforces federal wage laws against American businesses, its own conduct should be beyond reproach.” Main Justice’s own lawyers sued the agency three years ago for back wages, in a suit that was quickly joined by thousands of rank-and-file lawyers. In response, the department sought and won a budgetary provision prohibiting overtime pay for its employees. A decision in the suit, filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, could come down any day, although lawyers on the case expect Judge Robert Hodges Jr. to first hold oral arguments. Competing summary judgment motions were filed in December. If victorious, Main Justice lawyers could receive as much as 25 percent of their salaries over the seven-year class period, with some due $100,000 or more. Such a ruling could cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars. The letter calls for Ashcroft to take steps to overturn the Congressional budgetary rider that prohibits overtime pay. There was no such provision during the seven years covered by the suit. “Certainly the letter will be reviewed by the Attorney General, who will respond appropriately,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Chris Watney, who did not know if Ashcroft had seen the letter. Bob Van Kirk, a Williams & Connolly partner in Washington, D.C., working for the plaintiffs, sounding a similar theme as the legislators, said the Justice Department should operate by the laws it aims to enforce. Government lawyers outside the Justice Department are paid overtime. All federal employees, including those within the department, keep track of their overtime hours — not only to ensure taxpayers get their money’s worth, but for appropriations purposes. Law firms that work with Justice Department lawyers on such cases as complex civil actions are billed for the federal lawyers’ overtime hours, even though the lawyers themselves receive nothing. The suit was the backdrop for more controversy last year when top officials at the Justice Department asked any prosecutor facing off against Williams & Connolly to report to the Professional Responsibility Advisory Office. The department said it was trying to avoid the reversal of criminal convictions based on allegations that the prosecutor had a financial relationship with the defendant’s lawyer’s firm. The department also required attorneys confronting Williams & Connolly in civil matters to obtain a waiver. Williams & Connolly accused the department of a nefarious attempt to learn the identity of the class members, who have been anonymous. The case is Doe v. United States, 98-896.

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