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Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez of the Civil Rights Division Speaks Before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution
Washington, D.C. ~ Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Good morning, Chairman Franks, Ranking Member Nadler, Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Conyers, and distinguished members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today about the critical work being done by the Civil Rights Division.

 

When I last had the honor to appear before you, just months after being sworn in as Assistant Attorney General, I spoke about our efforts to restore and transform the Civil Rights Division. I promised to ensure aggressive, evenhanded and independent enforcement of all of the laws within our jurisdiction.

 

In the year and a half since, we have invested a great amount of energy into these efforts – and I am happy to report that we’ve had great success. The work produced in recent weeks alone illustrates the wide range of our efforts and is typical of the Division’s work.  The following describes some of work in recent weeks.

 

A jury in New York found three men guilty of charges related to a scheme to compel undocumented Latin American women to come to the United States with promises of jobs as waitresses in two bars, and then forcing the women to engage in commercial sex acts. Human trafficking of this nature robs individuals of their freedom and their dignity, and we cannot allow it to happen in a nation that prides itself on liberty.  In 2009, our Criminal Section filed a record number of human trafficking cases, and then topped their own record in 2010, charging 99 defendants in 52 cases.  

 

We recently won the first conviction at trial of a defendant charged under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 – a law that has provided us with critical new tools to prosecute hate crimes.   The conviction followed a guilty plea by a co-defendant two days prior.   The defendants threatened five Hispanic men who had pulled into a gas station parking lot, and then pursued the victims in a truck.  When the defendants caught up to the victims, they continued to threaten and hurl racial epithets at the victims, and then rammed into the victims’ car repeatedly, causing it to cross the opposite lane of traffic, go off the road, crash into a tree and ignite. All five victims were injured, including one victim who sustained life-threatening injuries.

 

We announced multi-million dollar settlements with Bank of America/Countrywide and Saxon Mortgage Services to resolve allegations that they wrongfully foreclosed upon active duty members of the armed forces without first obtaining court orders, in violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. By way of illustration, during our investigation we encountered a case involving a servicemember who was severely injured by an IED while serving in Iraq, breaking his back and causing traumatic brain injury. The servicer foreclosed on him, despite receiving notice on multiple occasions that he was serving in Iraq. He returned to the United States in a wheelchair with the prognosis that he would never walk again. He spent two years in recovery, re-learning how to walk and eventually run; however, he still suffers from the impact of the traumatic brain injury.

 

We cannot allow the members of our military – who have made great personal sacrifices on our behalf – to attempt to transition to civilian life only to find their credit ruined and their homes in danger.

 

Combined, the two settlements provide more than $22 million in monetary relief for at least 178 victims. To truly make these servicemembers whole, Bank of America/Countrywide and Saxon, have also agreed to repair negative credit reports and not pursue any remaining amounts owed under the mortgages.   The men and women who protect and defend our nation deserve to know that we have their backs at home, and these settlements are part of a broader effort in the Division to protect the rights of members of our armed forces. These efforts have included ramped up efforts to protect servicemembers’ civilian employment rights, as well as an unprecedented effort to enforce UOCAVA and the MOVE Act and protect the voting rights of servicemembers.

 

We have ramped up fair lending enforcement, and we recently announced a settlement with Citizens Bank, in Michigan, to resolve allegations that the bank discriminated against African Americans by failing to serve the credit needs of African American neighborhoods in and around Detroit – a classic case of redlining that deprives neighborhoods of the investment needed to thrive. We cannot claim to offer true equal opportunity if we are depriving entire neighborhoods of access to credit. The case was the product of our new fair lending unit – which has around 60 open matters and last year secured the largest ever fair lending settlement.

 

Yesterday, we announced a settlement agreement under the ADA with Wells Fargo that will ensure equal access for individuals with disabilities to Wells Fargo’s services nationwide, including nearly 10,000 retail banking, brokerage and mortgage stores, over 12,000 ATMs, and its telephone and website services.   The agreement resolves numerous complaints filed by individuals who are deaf, are hard of hearing, or have speech disabilities who allege that Wells Fargo would not do business with them over the phone using a telecommunications relay service.   Wells Fargo will pay up to $16 million to compensate individuals harmed by violations, making it the largest monetary agreement ever reached under Title III of the ADA.

 

Last week, we charged a Wisconsin man with a violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The affidavit in support of the criminal complaint alleges that, while loading his handgun, the defendant discharged a bullet through the door of his hotel room into the room across the hall.  Police responded and he was arrested for reckless endangerment.  Evidence uncovered thus far indicates that the defendant traveled to Madison with his gun in an attempt to kill doctors to stop them from performing reproductive health services. 

 

We traveled to Newark, New Jersey, to launch a civil pattern or practice investigation into the Newark Police Department to examine allegations of, among other things, use of excessive force and discriminatory policing. We will investigate whether systemic violations of the constitution or federal law by officers of the NPD have occurred and, if so, we will work with the city, the police department and the community to develop a plan for reform. We also continue to work with the New Orleans Police Department to develop a comprehensive blueprint for reform that will reduce crime, ensure respect for the Constitution, and restore public confidence in the NOPD.

 

We settled a case against the Owatonna School District in Minnesota for failing to take steps to combat persistent peer harassment against Somali-American students. The students said they were taunted, made fun of for their culture and told to “go back to Africa.” Our investigation came after complaints were filed with the Division and the Department of Education after a fight broke out involving nearly a dozen high school students. The settlement ensures that, going forward, the school district will respond promptly when students are harassed because their race, color or national origin.

 

And today, sentencing is scheduled for two former police officers from Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, who were convicted of charges related to the cover up of a hate-fueled beating death of a Latino man that occurred in that town.

 

Every day in the Civil Rights Division presents me, my staff, and our outstanding team of dedicated career attorneys and professionals a new opportunity to protect and defend the rights of individuals who might not be able to assert those rights on their own. We are proud to carry the torch of the great civil rights pioneers who fought for laws that would ensure equal opportunity and equal justice – and we honor their legacy by enforcing those laws aggressively and evenhandedly.

 

I thank you for the opportunity to tell you about our work, and I look forward to answering your questions.

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