Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good afternoon and thank you for that kind introduction. And thanks to the 101st Airborne Division, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the entire Fort Campbell community for welcoming me. It is my honor to be here with you today to discuss our common mission – serving and protecting the citizens of the United States of America.
At the Department of Justice, we are tasked with enforcing the law and defending the interests of the United States against threats both foreign and domestic. Our lawyers, investigators and agents are given wide-ranging responsibilities, from fighting financial fraud, to investigating transnational organized crime, to ensuring that the consumer products we use are safe. The FBI and our prosecutors have a leading role in counterterrorism efforts. And we also have the responsibility of defending government agencies and officials against lawsuits that challenge their actions and decisions – including actions of the Department of Defense and other national security agencies like the detention of individuals at Guantanamo Bay, the targeting of terrorists overseas and the use of surveillance programs.
These missions are all undertaken with a central goal in mind, which is to ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans. And for no one is this goal more important than the soldiers, sailors and airmen who are defending us on the ground every day. The sacrifices required of our military are great and while we can never fully repay the debt the country owes you for these sacrifices, we at the Department of Justice can use every available tool to protect your interests back home.
These tools include a number of laws the department enforces that are specifically designed for servicemembers. These laws protect your financial and voting rights while you are serving our country, and your employment rights when you transition back to civilian life or if you join the reserves. Too often civilian businesses take advantage of the vulnerability of servicemembers and their families, especially when they are stationed overseas or preparing for deployment, so in addition to using these specialized laws, we enforce consumer protection laws in cases where servicemembers are the victims. We help to ensure you have the right tools and support to do your job effectively and safely – by, for example, holding accountable defense contractors who provide defective equipment. And we are committed to providing training and resources to federal, state and local law enforcement and legal practitioners, so they are aware of your rights and how to assist you. We also use our grant programs to support projects like veterans treatment courts, which work with veterans who are struggling with mental health issues or battling addiction.
While the department has long been committed to protecting and supporting servicemembers through these efforts, former Attorney General Eric Holder and I felt we could enhance our work in this area. So one year ago this week, I had the honor of announcing the launch of the department’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative. Our goal was, and is, to further the department’s existing efforts by coordinating and expanding our enforcement, training and outreach work on behalf of servicemembers, veterans and their families. And we hope to marshal all available resources across the government by expanding our partnerships with other federal agencies, and especially the Department of Defense, to ensure that the rights and privileges of the men and women of the armed forces are honored and upheld. Attorney General Lynch is strongly committed to this work and she sends along her greetings today.
One key objective of our Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative has been to ensure that servicemembers and their families fully understand their rights and know what to do when those rights have been violated. That is why I am happy to announce the launch today of our updated website, servicemembers.gov. We hope that this site will serve as a one-stop shop for servicemembers, veterans and their families, as well as for the legal community that serves you. On the site, we have provided summaries of your legal rights, including information on how and where you may file a complaint if you believe your rights have been violated. And if you have any questions not answered by the information on the site, you may complete a short online form that, once completed, will go directly to initiative staff for a timely response.
At servicemembers.gov, legal practitioners will also find in-depth information on the statutes protecting servicemembers, along with recent case summaries, complaints and other court documents. We provide information on recent settlements as well, so that legal practitioners and servicemembers alike are aware of what the department can and will do to ensure that your rights and interests are protected. And we have links to other federal agencies who also work hard to address the needs of the military community.
Servicemembers.gov is a work in progress and we are just at the beginning of a long process towards creating the best possible educational resource for you and your families, and for the people who want to help protect your rights. We look forward to feedback from the military community as we work to make the website as useful as possible.
Another goal of the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative has been to better understand the needs of the military. We understand that effective enforcement of the laws protecting your rights requires a strong relationship between the civilian and military professionals who work jointly on these issues. That is why over the past year, the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative has worked to forge stronger relationships with the military and with our federal partners who are tasked with protecting the rights of servicemembers.
For example, this past fall, the initiative convened a meeting of the Judge Advocates General (TJAG) of all of the military services, together with representatives from the Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. At this gathering, we heard from the TJAGs about current issues impacting the military community and we received critical feedback on our and our partner agencies’ efforts on behalf of servicemembers. We talked about the power of collaboration across the government and we pledged to work together to identify the most effective ways to protect the rights and interests of the military community.
The Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative also has made it a priority to visit military installations to speak directly with soldiers, sailors and airmen about how the Department of Justice can better serve servicemembers and their families. Over the past year, we have visited soldiers at Fort Hood and Fort Stewart, cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, airmen at Peterson Air Force Base and now all of you here today.
Going forward, we hope to continue this dialogue by organizing listening sessions with United States Attorneys at military installations around the country. Every judicial district in the country has a United States Attorney, who is the chief federal law enforcement officer for that area. We have plans to join United States Attorneys in their districts to continue to hear about the issues that matter to you as servicemembers.
I strongly believe that civilians at the Department of Justice and across the government must do all we can to better understand the unique challenges and pressures felt by those serving in the military. These efforts to foster coordination and dialogue between the military and law enforcement are especially important because they help us do a better job in enforcing the laws that protect the rights and interests of servicemembers and veterans. Today, I want to share the stories of soldiers, sailors and airmen whose rights were violated and who obtained relief – for themselves and, in some cases, also for thousands of others.
A few years ago, the Department of Justice received a phone call from an airman at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. He said that his bank had refused to reduce the interest rate on his credit card when he entered active duty. If he was right, that failure would mean that his bank – Capital One – would have violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act – the SCRA. That law provides financial protections for servicemembers as they enter active duty military service. It eases obligations associated with things such as rental agreements, mortgage payments, automobile leases and income tax payments, so that servicemembers and their families can devote their full attention to deployment. The law recognizes that servicemembers may be deployed with little advance notice, leading to financial stress and consequences – and that servicemembers should not have to face those burdens without special protection.
The airman’s phone call triggered an investigation. That investigation wound up extending beyond his account, to the accounts of tens of thousands of other servicemembers. Ultimately, it resulted in a settlement with Capitol One of over $12 million paid to directly to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who were harmed.
This is not an isolated case. When servicemembers saw that they were being charged excess interest on their student loans, their reports started an investigation against the loan servicing company, Navient Corporation, that returned $60 million to nearly 78,000 fellow servicemembers. When almost 2,500 servicemembers faced the wrongful foreclosure of their homes while they were deployed, the Department of Justice recovered $311 million for them from five of the nation’s largest mortgage servicers.
And the phenomenon of a single phone call uncovering a larger problem is also not unique. When a soldier had his car repossessed in the middle of the night while he was at basic training, his story launched an investigation into the practices of a motor vehicle lender called Santander Consumer USA, which found evidence that the lender had improperly repossessed or collected fees from the repossession of over a thousand vehicles belonging to servicemembers. Because this one soldier spoke up, the Department of Justice was able to recover over $9 million for more than 1,000 servicemembers.
The Justice Department’s enforcement efforts extend beyond protecting the economic rights of servicemembers. We protect the employment rights of servicemembers and veterans, enforcing the laws that prohibit discrimination based on present, past or future military service and that entitle reservists to return to their civilian employment with the seniority, status, and rate of pay they would have earned had they remained continuously with their civilian employer rather than taking service-related leave. We assist servicemembers and their families when they face difficulty voting while they are overseas, enforcing the federal law that requires states and territories to allow servicemembers to register and vote absentee in federal elections, as well as in some state and local elections. And we ensure that servicemembers get the equipment they deserve to do their jobs by holding accountable defense contractors who have provided defective, unsafe, or counterfeit devices to the military.
For example, we recently reached a settlement with a company that sold illuminating para-flares – tubes filled with propellant that burn in excess of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Soldiers and airmen used these flares extensively for nighttime combat, covert, and search-and-rescue operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As you can imagine, their safety depended on the quality of these products. Yet, as the Justice Department learned from a whistleblower, the company had knowingly been selling defective flares for years. An investigation found that the flares were incapable of withstanding a 10-foot drop without exploding or igniting. The company agreed to pay the federal government $21 million and to spend almost $16 million to retrofit the 76,000 unsafe para-flares remaining in the military’s inventory.
All of these actions are a product of a partnership between the Justice Department and the military – a partnership that empowers servicemembers like you to bring complaints of unlawful conduct to the people who are in the best position to do something about it. The truth is, one soldier speaking out about fraud or abuse can help protect countless others. We need you to let us know when there is a problem so that we can work to stop it, and we are trying to spread the word through our website and through visits to military installations like this one today. Making it easier to speak out – by informing you about your rights, by directing you where to go to report violations and by supporting the efforts of lawyers and law enforcement to respond – is what the initiative is all about.
But our responsibility doesn’t end there – once we hear from you about a violation of the law, we want to ensure that everyone handling your case knows what to do. That is why the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative is committed to training department lawyers, both at our offices in Washington and in U.S. Attorney’s offices across the country, on these laws. And we are committed to training JAG officers and legal assistance attorneys as well, so that when you reach out for assistance, you are able to get the help you need.
Our experiences representing servicemembers, veterans and their families and our experiences traveling to bases and meeting servicemembers has also taught us that these laws have their limitations. That is why the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative has put forward a package of amendments to the laws that are designed to protect servicemembers and is working with Congress to try to get those amendments passed into law. We hope that these proposed changes will strengthen our authority under the law and give us more tools to protect servicemembers.
I believe we have come a long way since the launch of the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative one year ago, but there is more we can do to fight for those who fight for our country. It is vital that we at the Justice Department do our jobs to enforce the criminal and civil laws designed to protect servicemembers, veterans and their families, so that you can focus on your invaluable work protecting our nation.
When we launched the initiative, it was our hope that it will become a mainstay at the Department of Justice for the years and decades to come. That is why we chose capable and committed career department attorneys with strong ties to the military community to lead this initiative. This includes Director Silas Darden, who is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserves, Assistant Director Andrew Braniff and Assistant Director Tanya Kirwan. These lawyers serve as a central point of contact on issues affecting servicemembers so that we can be sure we are using all available tools to address each problem or concern.
Thank you again for the invitation to be here today and for your time. I look forward to hearing your input on how the Department of Justice and our Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative can better serve you and I look forward to the progress that we can make together. And on behalf of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice, thank you for your service.