NTEU, the National Treasury Employees Union, filed a complaint last week against CFTC Commissioner Caroline Pham alleging “intimidation, harassment, and abuse” in both public and private workplace settings.
This is only an initial filing and Commissioner Pham has yet to provide her side of the events.
But the recitation of facts in the letter revisits well-worn battlelines between the legal profession’s culture of rough-and-tumble intellectual pugilism and tacitly fostering a bullying culture.
On or about Friday, October 20, 2023, the Union became aware of an instance of extreme intimidation, harassment and abuse of an Enforcement attorney by Pham. More specifically, at a Closed Commission Meeting (Closed Meeting) earlier on that same day, several BUEs observed first-hand Pham’s almost 30-minute harangue of an Enforcement attorney. During the Closed Meeting, Pham treated the Enforcement attorney as if they were a hostile witness being cross-examined and not as if they were both CFTC employees working toward a common goal. For example, Pham demanded that the Enforcement attorney answer her questions with only a “yes” or “no” response. Further, Pham repeatedly raised her voice and made angry facial expressions at the Enforcement attorney. When the Enforcement attorney attempted a substantive response to one of Pham’s questions, Pham raised her voice and yelled at the employee to “answer yes or no!” At this point, the Director of Enforcement interjected and asked Pham to allow the attorney to give a complete answer.
Some may argue that this sort of interrogation is not harassment but an integral part of building the best possible case. Steel sharpens steel or whatever vapid platitude you want to use. But that’s also not the purpose of this meeting. Enforcement can drill its attorneys on its own time and in the manner that Enforcement is more than qualified to employ. The Commissioners aren’t there to perform bad Socratic exercises to crush the will of their own staff.
You’ve got to feel bad for Socrates. Besides the whole “put to death” thing, the man’s legacy in the legal profession is providing an intellectual veneer for a bullying culture.
The thing is, the Socratic Method isn’t bad in theory. Socrates layered questions to patiently help his dialogue partner reach a new epiphany (except Meletus, but he was trying to get Socrates killed at the time so it’s hard to characterize that as a good faith exchange). It’s more Columbo than Perry Mason.
And whether its in the classroom or the Zoom room, there’s nothing productive about that ersatz Socratic Method.
The grievance doesn’t limit itself to this October meeting:
On information and belief, at the August Closed Meeting, Pham subjected an Enforcement manager to a lengthy (sixty-plus minutes) harangue in which she questioned the manager about the intelligence and skill of the manager’s staff, which had prepared papers that Pham and her staff reviewed in advance of the meeting. Upon information and belief, Pham also subjected an Office of General Counsel manager to similar questioning, suggesting their staff was equally incompetent.
Questioning the staff’s intelligence would seem to go afield of the Socratic Method. While the first anecdote could be cast as a bid to improve the case, this reads as a Commissioner actively opposed to Enforcement’s efforts.
The union requested recordings of both meetings to verify the allegations in the letter, providing a November 2 deadline. No indication yet whether or not the CFTC complied.
But they didn’t need recordings to establish the public statements Pham has made disparaging the staff. Like dissenting opinions blaming Enforcement for “no longer tak[ing] care to be precise” or a LinkedIn post that reads:
“The staff press release incorrectly appears to question the standard practice of rolling (i.e. rollover a trading provision. . . . I repeat my call for mandatory CFTC staff training program to improve basic knowledge and expertise.”
LinkedIn is all about posting your resume and posts like this can definitely bolster one’s resume as a potentially fierce CFTC opponent.
Whether or not this constitutes “intimidation, harassment, and abuse,” the allegations in the letter describe at least a needlessly unpleasant work environment.
Unfortunately, they also describe a work environment that’s all too familiar to attorneys.