By John Ellis
The Fresno Bee
The U.S. Attorney's Office for California's Eeastern District -- which covers Fresno -- has furloughed more than a third of its staff because of the federal government shutdown.
"That's having an impact across the whole office," U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wanger said in an interview. "It's having a really negative impact, obviously."
Wagner's office is the federal government's criminal prosecutor in a vast area from Kern County to the Oregon border and from the Coast Range to the Nevada border.
But beyond criminal matters, Wanger's attorneys and staff also handle civil case work on the government's behalf. And that civil area, he said, has faced a hit by the current furlough that is even deeper than on the criminal side.
One example is a $1.8 million settlement announced last month with Southern California Edison for damages from a 2007 wildfire that burned 1,350 acres in Kern and Tulare counties.
In other cases -- possibly one where someone injured on federal lands has sued the government or another has won a Social Security Administration benefit challenge -- the government could end up on the losing end of a legal fight.
"There are scores of cases in the office, many cases where we agree the feds owe damages, and we can't pay them because the people that make that happen have been furloughed," Wagner said.
Right now, 38% of the U.S. Attorney's Office's 168 employees are on involuntary furlough, he said. The U.S. Attorney has offices in both Fresno and Sacramento.
Those furloughed are mostly support staff for assistant U.S. attorneys. But their absence means investigations have slowed, as has the issuance of subpoenas and warrants, and indictment packages.
As bad as it is now, it could get even worse if the shutdown continues, Wagner said.
Courts across the nation are operating with fees and surplus funds, but that money could run out next week.
"It could have a profound impact on access to justice," Wagner said.