The closer one looks at the BART labor contract debacle, the more it becomes apparent that transit district attorneys deserve much blame.

They are the backstop, the folks charged with reading each line, making sure i's are dotted and t's crossed. They dropped the ball.

BART directors Thursday said the district cannot afford the disputed family leave provision, which would provide workers six weeks' full pay to take care of a seriously ill child, spouse, parent or domestic partner, or bond with a new child.

The provision would be nearly twice as generous as the standard California family-leave coverage, and would come on top of generous pension, retirement savings, health care and leave benefits.

Tom Hock, lead negotiator for BART, leaves the Caltrans offices in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Tom Hock, lead negotiator for BART, leaves the Caltrans offices in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

While BART directors appeared to show backbone, it's unclear whether they will stand firm and protect riders and taxpayers -- or, as they have throughout negotiations, eventually agree to another costly concession.

As this plays out, as we wonder whether the unions will again hold the Bay Area hostage to extract even more, the other looming question is, how did this happen?

That's where the attorneys come in. They get paid to make sure things like this don't happen. General Counsel Matthew Burrows earned salary and benefits worth $322,000 in 2012; Senior Attorney Vicki Nuetzel earned $221,000.

It was Nuetzel who eventually noticed the family leave provision, I'm told. But that was after union members had ratified the entire contract -- and more than three months after creation of the disputed document.

We're not talking about buried language. The family leave provision was two pages. It was clearly flagged in the middle of the cover page index each time contract materials were exchanged.

Burrows and Nuetzel did not respond to interview requests. A BART spokesman provided answers to some questions and ducked others.

Here's what we know: The final deal, reached Oct. 21, was actually a collection of agreements. Each was dated and had a separate set of signatures.

Many of the supposedly easier issues had been resolved months earlier. The family leave provision was one of 12 dated July 19, and one of 23 in the final deal that applied to both unions.

BART officials say -- but refuse to provide proof -- that the unions proposed the idea and district negotiators rejected it. But BART contract clerical help mistakenly typed up the proposal and included it with others sent to the unions for signature.

Three BART negotiators signed it, apparently in August and apparently without reading it. The three were Tom Hock, the high-priced heavy brought in under contract; Paul Oversier, assistant general manager for operations; and Rudolph Medina, labor relations manager.

Oversier candidly discussed his recollection of events, saying he did not recall signing it, but does not dispute that he did. Medina did not respond to questions.

As for Hock, he issued a statement claiming the disputed provision was not part of the last offer he saw before he was dismissed. That contradicts BART management and labor accounts, and doesn't answer why he signed the document.

Given the sloppy way BART management handled the negotiations, it's not surprising this happened.

Ultimately, the last line of defense should be the attorneys. They should review and sign off on every document along the way. That didn't happen.

Notably, BART's chronology indicates a "TA Inventory Meeting" on the two days after the Oct. 21 tentative agreement. This was a time for BART to carefully review documents before the union ratification vote. BART refuses to reveal who participated in that meeting or why the family leave provision was missed.

Meanwhile, the unions' claim that they all along considered the family leave provision part of the deal falls flat. The obvious evidence of that is a summary of the agreement that Amalgamated Transit Union sent to its members.

Titled "ATU Local 1555 Beat Back BART's Attack on Our Jobs," the email touts in detail the terms of the deal and urges ratifications. It never mentions the family leave provision. That suggests the unions had missed it, too, or, more likely, didn't want to call attention to it.

It almost slipped by.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/BorensteinDan.