Justice News

Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the National Association of Attorneys General Winter/Spring Meeting
Washington, DC
United States
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Monday, February 25, 2013

Good afternoon. Thank you Doug, for that kind introduction and for your leadership as President of the NAAG. Doug’s achievements in Maryland – whether it’s protecting the environment or fighting against human trafficking or safeguarding consumers from fraud – they are emblematic of the important work that you are all doing to improve the daily lives of Americans across the country.

Let me also thank James McPherson and NAAG for inviting me to speak this afternoon. For over a century, this organization has brought the chief legal officers of all the states and territories together to share dialogue and ideas.

Of course, I’m no stranger to NAAG: nearly 15 years ago I was privileged to serve as a California Special Assistant Attorney General in then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office. It’s where I first met and worked with some of you and where I came to appreciate the unique role that NAAG and state Attorneys General play in making real the promise of justice and equality under the law to which we all ascribe.

And one of the enduring realities of the last 15 years is that many of the issues we worked on in state attorneys general offices back then – consumer fraud, elder justice, high-tech crime, the exploitation of women and children for profit – those challenges remain with us still.

Of course, today they’re more complex, the perpetrators more sophisticated – and thanks to so many of you in this room, we have better tools and greater success than we did then – but over the last decade-and-a-half the demands your offices face to meet those challenges has only grown: from homeowners who have lost everything because of fraud; from consumers who have unknowingly bargained away their privacy in what seem to be routine commercial transactions; from elders who still fall victim to abuse in a variety of contexts as our Nation ages.

And when you layer on top of that a whole host of other challenges that state AGs are being called upon to meet – helping to ensure accountability after one of the worst financial calamities in history; addressing robo-signing in the mortgage servicing industry and establishing national consumer-conscious standards; or meeting critical law enforcement priorities in the context of severely shrinking budgets – put all of that together and you have a mix of challenges that require all us to work smarter, more collaboratively, and more comprehensively if we’re to be successful.

And I say “we” because the federal government is very much a part of this. Over the last 20 years, some of the Justice Department’s most significant law enforcement priorities have been those enforcement areas that are common to us both: securing the homeland; cracking down aggressively on waste, fraud and abuse in health care; fighting financial fraud in all forms; clamping down on human trafficking networks – these have required us to work together, to share information and strategies, and as one who has served in various positions at both the state and federal levels for most of the last two decades, I think that collaboration has never been more productive nor more important than it is right now.

I say that for three reasons:

First, although each of you still face issues that are unique to your own state or territory, and while there will always be differences in state and federal priorities that may lead us from time to time to seek different policy outcomes, what I think is remarkable is how so many of the enforcement challenges you confront cross state or, increasingly, international boundaries, and overlap with federal law enforcement efforts.

Often we’re all dealing with the same problems. And we’re serving the same public – a public that is more interested in our finding practical and effective solutions than they are about whatever boundaries may exist between state and federal jurisdiction.

A good example of this is our collaborative work in the area of financial fraud. We share the common goal to hold accountable those responsible for the last financial crisis, which had consequences felt not just at the national or global level, but in the countless local communities you represent, as well.

That’s why when President Obama created the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force in November 2009 – the broadest coalition of federal, state and local law enforcement, investigatory, and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat financial fraud – a key member of that Task Force was NAAG, representing the state AGs.

And the collaboration that effort has spawned has manifested itself in a variety of ways, from the landmark Mortgage Servicers Agreement so many of you helped make successful a year ago, to the work of several Task Force working groups including the Mortgage Fraud, Non-Discrimination and RMBS working groups. The Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force has improved our coordination and cooperation in the investigation and prosecution of significant financial crimes that we all – state and federal – are seeking to pursue and, quite frankly, illegally activity that we cannot effectively combat acting separately in our own jurisdictional silos.

The second reason I say our cooperation has never been more important is because we – the states and federal government, respectively -- have different enforcement tools we can bring to bear and that, when taken together, make our combined efforts in any given area a formidable force-multiplier when it comes to accountability and deterrence.

Sometimes your authority allows you to be more nimble than your federal counterparts; sometimes the federal hammer is heavier than that which can be wielded by the state alone. When we coordinate our use of both federal and state enforcement tools and resources, we can greatly improve our collective ability to respond to growing dangers.

We saw a great reminder of our enhanced effectiveness when we stand together earlier this month, when several of you joined the Attorney General and me in in announcing a civil lawsuit against Standard & Poor’s– the largest credit rating agency in the world. As you know, we allege that S&P defrauded investors who lost billions of dollars in structured financial products by issuing ratings that were inflated and biased by S&P’s concerns about market share and revenues.

That lawsuit – which is one of the Justice Department’s most significant matters – grew out of a close partnership with many of you over several years, and importantly it is complemented by 13 parallel state actions against S&P alleging similar misconduct. In this area as in others, you have a variety of flexible enforcement tools that differ from those available at the federal level.

Third, I think our collaboration with you is at premium right now because of the unique expertise, perspective and knowledge you can bring to bear on a whole range of local, regional, national, and international issues we both confront – insights that can enhance our approach to complex threats or catastrophic events.

What do I mean by this? Today in New Orleans, a trial is beginning that will determine liability for largest oil spill in American history, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire. Sitting with our Justice Department attorneys at counsel table will be attorneys from the AG offices of Louisiana and Alabama, with whom we’ve worked over the last two-and-a-half years to build our litigation case.

The case the United States is presenting in that courtroom today is stronger because of our collaboration with Louisiana and Alabama and our work with the other Gulf States – Mississippi, Florida and Texas – as well.

And that collaboration extends beyond the courtroom. Senior Department officials have been working closely with lawyers from Gulf Coast State Attorneys General offices as well as the heads of natural resource agencies and other state officials to assess the natural resource damages resulting from the spill; to develop restoration plans; and to recover restoration costs and other damages from BP.

Thus far, through this bipartisan, state-federal collaboration, we have negotiated a novel agreement through which BP has put $ 1 billion in trust to fund an initial set of “early” restoration projects.

And overall, we’ve obtained a landmark resolution of our federal criminal case against BP. We’ve secured $4 billion in penalties and fines – funds that won’t all end up in the federal Treasury, but instead will help provide direct support to Gulf Coast residents as communities throughout the region continue to recover and rebuild. And collaboration with state AG offices like yours helped make that possible.

So I think the cooperation and partnership we enjoy at this moment is at a high point. But of course, we can always do better. We have to double-down on our cooperation in the area of financial fraud because there’s no question we are stronger standing together than apart, and there are more individuals and organizations who have yet to account for the economic damage they have caused to our country.

We have to do more to curb the incidence of violence against women in this nation, an area that benefits greatly from increased collaboration between state and federal law enforcement efforts.

We need to increase our collaborative efforts to dismantle human trafficking networks in our country, an area where our work together has already enjoyed some success.

And we need to enhance our collaboration around law enforcement in rural America, particularly in Indian country, which pose some unique difficulties and where, working together, we can greatly increase our effectiveness.

So as we’ve seen over and over again, while we come from different parts of the country, have different backgrounds, belong to different political parties, our voices and our work are enhanced when we come together across state and federal boundaries, to combat pervasive and common threats.

This is an important partnership, now more than ever, because in this time of tight budgets and scare resources, we can and we must rely on each other if we’re to effectively meet the needs of the American people we serve.

I thank you for your dedication and commitment to our common work and appreciate the opportunity to be with you today.

Thank you.