A senior Labor Department official with outsize control of agency operations is leaving after a White House investigation into complaints about mistreating staff and misleading Trump administration personnel, sources with direct knowledge of the probe told Bloomberg Law.
DOL Chief of Staff Nicholas Geale is leaving the department at the end of the month, an agency official confirmed. The announcement comes after a White House Office of Management and Budget investigation into complaints that Geale cultivated a threatening, hostile work environment and misled White House staff about progress on DOL policies, the sources said.
Geale’s departure, first reported by Axios, marks a major blow for Labor Secretary
Upon receiving an inquiry from Bloomberg Law, the DOL issued the following statement: “The U.S. Department of Labor today announced the upcoming resignation of Chief of Staff Nicholas Geale effective May 31, 2019.”
“I want to thank the dedicated and professional staff of the Department of Labor for helping to do so much good work for our nation,” said Geale in the statement. “I am very excited to spend time with my new family and take on the next challenges our journey.”
“In many positions at the Department of Labor, on Capitol Hill, and as a member of the National Mediation Board, Nicholas Geale is a national expert on labor issues,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta stated. “After years of hard work here at the Department, I wish him the best on his future endeavors.”
Senior political staffers have complained directly to Acosta about Geale’s behavior over the course of the secretary’s two years on Trump’s Cabinet, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to detail a sensitive government investigation. Acosta has not taken any known steps to address the accusations against his chief lieutenant, telling the accusers that Geale is a valuable aide. Geale often serves as the face of the secretary’s office in dealing with the White House, Congress, DOL staff, and outside stakeholders.
Geale continues to report to duty at DOL headquarters. Acosta is currently in Colombia to speak at a conference May 14.
Sources declined to identify who made the final decision to demand Geale’s ouster.
Former DOL staffers have in recent months told Bloomberg Law that Geale has been carrying out directives from the White House and Secretary’s office with a brash and abrasive style—laden with profanity—that’s been driving some senior personnel out of the department. The staff upheaval has been blamed for at least some delays on important DOL policy updates, such as a top White House priority to expand apprenticeship programs.
Geale tried to tamp down talk of dissension in the ranks in an April 2 interview with Bloomberg Law. The former National Mediation Board member said his large role was a natural fit, given his experience.
“A lot of other people who have joined the department don’t have that kind of background,” Geale said. “That I’m both chief of staff and counselor to the secretary speaks to the fact that he wants my advice on policy matters.”
Acosta is now poised to lose his most trusted DOL adviser at a time when he’s under pressure from some Democrats and progressive groups to resign over his handling as a South Florida prosecutor of a decade-old plea deal for accused teen sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. A federal judge recently ruled that Acosta and others broke the law by keeping Epstein’s accusers in the dark about the deal. The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility has also launched an investigation.
Order to Political Heads
Current and former staffers told Bloomberg law that Geale’s contentious approach to work made life intolerable for DOL staff at all hours of the day. He also relegated senior personnel to reduced roles with a micromanaging approach, in which Acosta and a handful of political staffers control decision making across the department down to details usually left for others.
In one instance, Geale told senior political leaders that they couldn’t leave DOL headquarters without his permission.
“Effective immediately, all political agency leadership will physically remain in the Frances Perkins [Building] on the day before a hearing until all hearing preparation is completed,” Geale wrote to 17 officials in an April 2018 email obtained by Bloomberg Law. “No agency head is allowed to be out of town or otherwise even leave the building on the day before the Secretary testifies without affirmative permission from either Molly [Conway, deputy chief of staff] or me.”
What some perceive as a hostile treatment of employees at the agency dedicated to protecting workers’ welfare others see as a sign of competence for a chief of staff.
“Nick is extremely able as chief of staff and has a lot on his plate,” said Greg Jacob, a former labor solicitor who worked with Geale in the George W. Bush administration. “It’s fair to say he doesn’t suffer fools lightly and doesn’t have time for unreasonable obstruction.” Jacob spoke in an interview before new details surfaced from OMB inquiries.
The OMB general counsel’s office began the investigation after receiving a complaint of a profanity-laced phone call from Geale, which the recipient interpreted as threatening.
The White House, particularly the Domestic Policy Council, already had issues with Geale’s conduct prior to receiving this complaint. At least some officials had complained about the pace of regulatory activity at the department.
Clash with Legal Office
The DOL chief of staff position is largely undefined, varying in power depending on the administration and the secretary’s preferences. But Geale has been heavily involved in policy, litigation, and operational decisions ever since his original appointment as acting solicitor of labor in February 2017. Acosta was sworn in as Geale’s boss about two months later and Geale was promoted to chief of staff, while temporarily still running the agency’s legal shop.
More recently, Geale has taken on a second hat as the labor secretary’s senior counselor. He continues to keep close tabs on the legal office, leading to clashes with Solicitor Kate O’Scannlain. Geale has effectively limited the top DOL attorney’s say in important policy and other decisions, sources familiar with their dynamic said.
The solicitor historically has served as a legal check, analyzing whether policy moves can be defended in court. But Geale, Conway, and Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy Jonathan Berry regularly ignore or overrule that analysis, the sources said.
At the start of 2019, the department saw four high-level political appointees leave. That included Congressional Liaison Katherine McGuire, Acting Wage and Hour Administrator Bryan Jarrett, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Jeffrey Grappone, and Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service Matthew Miller.
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