A Labor Department official who continued legal work against an Ironworkers’ union after joining the agency has stepped down from his post.
Associate Deputy Labor Secretary Michael Avakian resigned effective April 5, a Labor Department official told Bloomberg Law. The move comes less than one month after Bloomberg Law reported that Avakian was briefly suspended following an ethics inquiry.
“He moved back into the private sector,” the official said.
Avakian’s resignation also comes after House Democrats requested information about his work on the lawsuit for more than three months after joining the DOL last year. Lawmakers have voiced concern that Avakian may have been working on union-related policy work at the same time he was representing D5 Iron Works Inc. in the lawsuit against an Ironworkers local union in Indiana.
Avakian filed two motions on behalf of D5 Iron Works Inc. and participated in a pair of conference calls with the judge in the case after joining the department last April. He was suspended without pay for two weeks last year for exercising “bad judgment,” a DOL spokeswoman previously told Bloomberg Law.
Labor Department officials determined that Avakian didn’t use government resources for the case and didn’t “knowingly” violate “a criminal statute or particular ethics rule,” the department spokeswoman said. Instead, he misunderstood what ethics officials meant when they instructed Avakian to “wrap up” his work on the case.
Avakian’s involvement in the case against the Ironworkers union while employed by the DOL raises questions about the overall work of the federal agency, Kathleen Clark, an ethics lawyer who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, told Bloomberg Law.
“This is a really serious violation because it undermines the ability of the public to trust the government on these issues,” Clark said, and to believe the DOL is working for the public’s interest as opposed to one private company’s interest.
Democrats in a March 18 letter to the DOL asked about other cases in which Avakian may have been involved while at the department. They also requested copies of all department ethics rules applicable to Avakian, information on which department officials knew about Avakian’s continued involvement in the D5 Iron Works case, and whether the DOL conducted investigations into other agency staff for similar transgressions.
Avakian was a longtime labor litigator who worked for Atlanta-based law firm Wimberly & Lawson and represented the conservative advocacy group Center on National Labor Policy before joining the DOL.
D5 Iron Works alleges in its lawsuit that union leaders used physical violence in an attempt to secure a collective bargaining agreement at a construction site. Federal prosecutors charged a pair of union officials with labor extortion less than two weeks after Avakian withdrew from the case.
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(Updated with additional reporting.)
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