Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Ed, for the kind introduction and thank you to everyone in your office who helped put together this visit. And thank you to the 3rd Infantry Division and the entire Fort Stewart community for inviting me and for providing me with such a warm welcome. It is a great honor to be here. Seeing firsthand your dedication and commitment to serving our country in the Armed Forces is inspiring and motivating.
Through the lens of my responsibilities at the Department of Justice, I have had the privilege and the duty to learn about the work that you do. I am fortunate that my work has touched on a remarkable range of interesting issues, from defending court challenges to the health care law and to environmental regulations to investigating and prosecuting hate crimes to protecting the safety of the medicines we take and the food we eat. But throughout my time at the department, the Attorney General has identified “combating terrorism and other national security threats at home and abroad” – using every available and appropriate tool to keep the American people safe – as the department’s highest priority.
As the department has defended the legality of terrorism watch lists or represented current and former military officers when they are sued for things they have done in service to the country, I have opened a small window into the military world – a world that, as the Supreme Court has said, is, “by necessity, a specialized society separate from civilian society,” that has, “by necessity, developed laws and traditions of its own during its long history.” I have seen the scope and difficulty of the essential work of the military and of the intelligence community, and the essential contributions that individual servicemembers make.
One lesson I have taken from these experiences is how important it is for those of us on the civilian side of the government who interact with the military to do more to understand its culture and traditions, its unique needs and pressures. To perform the role we play in defending the actions of the Department of Defense and other national security agencies, we at the Justice Department need to bridge any divide between ourselves and our clients. That is one of the reasons why I am grateful for the chance to be here today.
But the connection between the Justice Department and the military is not limited to defending national security programs when they are challenged in court. We also have a responsibility to protect your rights and interests, as servicemembers and, later, as veterans. It is that responsibility I want to focus on in my remarks to you today.
It is a sad reality that servicemembers face many obstacles and challenges both during and after military service. You should not have to worry that the equipment you use in the course of protecting and securing our country is unsafe or defective. You should not have to worry while you are overseas that your car will be repossessed or that your home will be subject to an illegal foreclosure without your knowledge. You should not have to worry that you will be targeted by a financial scam that could threaten your hard-earned savings or, should you later join the Reserves, that you will lose your civilian job when you report for duty.
And yet, far too often, we see these things happen. We see unscrupulous businesses attempt to take advantage of the stresses a servicemember faces while preparing for a deployment or of the added difficulties your families face when you are deployed. It is vital that we hold those people accountable – that we at the Justice Department do our jobs in enforcing 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.
That is why I was honored earlier this year to announce the Attorney General’s creation of the Justice Department’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative – a coordinated effort to ensure that the legal protections relating to servicemembers’ rights and interests are made real for men and women in uniform across the country.
I want to talk today about three ways in which the department’s enforcement efforts are working – by helping to ensure you have the right equipment and support to do your job safely abroad; by protecting your financial and voting rights while you are serving your country; and by providing you all of the support you are entitled to by law when you transition back to civilian life.
As members of the Armed Forces, you sacrifice so much. You are asked to leave your friends and family and travel to distant locations, where you may have to put yourself in harm’s way in order to secure our nation. The government should provide you with the tools you need to do that job. The Department of Justice helps ensure that you only are given equipment that meets performance standards by aggressively pursuing lawsuits against defense contractors who have provided defective, unsafe, or counterfeit devices to the military.
For example, imagine serving in a unit engaged in nighttime combat in Iraq. In covert or search-and-rescue operations, you rely on high-powered flares for illumination – three-foot-long tubes filled with propellant that burn in excess of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Your safety depends on those flares working the way they are supposed to, providing the light you need and not creating an additional hazard when you already have too many to worry about.
And yet, several years ago, a whistleblower alerted the government that a company making many of the flares used in Iraq and Afghanistan had knowingly been selling defective ones. An investigation found that the flares the company had delivered could not withstand a ten foot drop without exploding or igniting – and that the company was aware of this defect.
Confronted with these facts, the company agreed to pay the federal government $21 million. More importantly, under the settlement the company also spent an additional $16 million to retrofit the 76,000 unsafe flares remaining in the military’s inventory – that is, to make sure the soldiers in the field would have safe flares going forward.
The Justice Department’s efforts to ensure that contractors live up to their obligations to provide safe, reliable products to the military also extend to bringing criminal charges where appropriate. Take the case of a contractor that provided defective wing pins to the Department of Defense. You may know that wing pins secure the wings of F-15 fighter aircraft. The contractor promised that it would make the pins using a certain type of hardened steel and subject them to a rigorous safety inspection process. But it didn’t: some of the wing pins were made with the wrong type of steel and many were not subjected to proper safety testing. When the former owner of the contractor was questioned about the defective parts, he provided forged documents falsely claiming that a third-party testing company had conducted the necessary safety tests. He was recently sentenced to six months in prison.
Ensuring that the equipment you use meets critical safety and performance standards is an important priority for our government. But our country’s obligation to you does not end on the battlefield. We also have an obligation to ensure that the rights you and your family have are protected at home while you serve overseas. The Department of Justice works to meet this obligation by enforcing laws that protect your financial and voting rights while you serve on active duty, allowing you to focus on your critical jobs.
One such law is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) which provides protections for servicemembers who are entering active duty by postponing or suspending certain obligations associated with rental agreements, automobile leases, mortgage foreclosures, evictions, security deposits, installment contracts, student loan payments and more. It also eases financial burdens by providing relief from some credit obligations and court proceedings while you are on active duty. This law is intended to allow servicemembers to focus on deployment and to reduce the stress placed on family members while their loved ones are away. It was also created in recognition of the fact that servicemembers frequently have your lives disrupted with little advance notice, which may have serious financial implications for you and your families.
Many of you have probably heard stories of servicemembers who have lost homes, cars, or belongings while they were deployed. Some of you may have been the victims of fraud yourselves. The Department of Justice is committed taking action in these cases. We have used the SCRA to obtain $60 million dollars in compensation to nearly 78,000 servicemembers who were charged excess interest on their student loans by Navient Corporation, the student loan servicer that was formerly part of Sallie Mae. We are in the process of obtaining relief for hundreds of servicemembers who were subjected to wrongful mortgage foreclosures or interest rate violations by five of the country’s largest mortgage lenders; already, 952 servicemembers and their co-borrowers have received over $123 million from four banks and mortgage lenders who improperly foreclosed on the servicemembers’ homes without going to court. The banks also committed to repairing any negative credit reporting that occurred as a result of these wrongful foreclosures.
Many of the cases the Justice Department brings address improper foreclosures or repossessions on a large scale. For example, earlier this year the department settled allegations that a motor vehicle lender, Santander Consumer USA, had improperly repossessed or collected fees from the repossession of over a thousand vehicles belonging to servicemembers. But these cases often begin not with thousands of complaints, but with one complaint. The investigation of Santander started when a single soldier, Army Specialist Joshua Davis, contacted Army Legal Assistance after his car was repossessed in the middle of the night while he was at basic training. Army Specialist Davis’s complaint made its way to the Justice Department and the resulting investigation revealed evidence not only that that the repossession of Army Specialist Davis’s car was illegal, but that hundreds of other servicemembers had suffered similar illegal repossessions at the hands of the same lender. The SCRA requires a court to review and approve of any repossession if the servicemember took out a loan and made a payment before entering military service. By failing to obtain court orders before repossessing these automobiles, Santander prevented the court from reviewing whether these repossessions should be delayed or adjusted in light of the owners’ military service. Santander wound up paying at least $9.35 million to over 1,000 servicemembers, the largest settlement for illegal automobile repossessions ever obtained by the United States. And it all started with a single servicemember calling attention to conduct that was affecting many of his peers too.
Another obstacle servicemembers and their families can face is difficulty voting while overseas. The Department of Justice enforces the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which requires states and territories to allow servicemembers to register and vote absentee in federal elections, as well as in some state and local elections. The Department of Justice recently filed suit in Illinois to ensure that military and overseas citizens of Illinois have sufficient time to vote in special elections for filling vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives. And in another recent case, the state of West Virginia was ordered by a court to count ballots submitted by military and overseas voters that may have been received after Election Day due to the state’s failure to send ballots to these voters in a timely fashion.
Of course, the challenges faced by servicemembers are not limited to times of active duty. These challenges are often compounded by new issues stemming from military service, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse and other issues that affect reentry to civilian life. That is why we provided grants to support Veterans’ Treatment Courts, which link veterans to programs, benefits and services that may assist in their recovery. We also use our grants to support the efforts of other courts, organizations and law enforcement that provide assistance to servicemembers and veterans who become involved in the criminal justice system and to support mentoring programs and services for youth with a parent in the military.
New challenges also come for servicemembers who join the Reserves, when your military obligations can lead to unfair treatment by civilian employers. Consider the case of Sergeant Timothy Stoner, an Army National Guardsman and college campus police officer who was denied two promotions due to his military duties. Sergeant Stoner is a Sergeant First Class in the Army National Guard with 21 years of military service, including active duty deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has been a campus police officer at Pima Community College in Arizona since 2001, but was repeatedly denied promotions.
It became clear to him that the reason was that the police chief did not approve of his service in the Guard. Sergeant Stoner first applied for the promotion while deployed in Afghanistan and the police chief reportedly called him “selfish” for seeking promotion while he was “volunteering,” as the chief put it, for active military duty. On another occasion, the police chief said that military servicemembers are so used to taking orders that they cannot think for themselves and do not do well in stressful situations. And yet another time, during one of his interviews for the promotion, the police chief questioned whether Sergeant Stoner would retire from military service and became upset when he said that he did not plan to retire.
The Justice Department obtained relief for Sergeant Stoner under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) which is a statute created to protect servicemembers who have experienced discrimination in their civilian employment based on their military service or status. USERRA ensures that servicemembers are not disadvantaged in their civilian jobs and are promptly reemployed in these jobs upon returning from duty. This means that employers cannot deny servicemembers promotions they would have reasonably obtained if not for their military service. This also means that employers cannot deny servicemembers their seniority, status and rate of pay they would have received if not for their military service. It means that employers cannot deny applicants a position or withdraw employment offers based on their military service.
Sergeant Stoner is one of the thousands of servicemembers for whom the Department of Justice has sought relief under USERRA. But our goal in bringing these cases extends beyond helping deserving men and women vindicate their rights in the civilian workforce. It is about changing the culture of businesses that would discriminate against servicemembers. As part of the resolution of Sergeant Stoner’s case, for example, the Justice Department required his employer to change its personnel policies to advise all of its employees of their rights and obligations under USERRA.
Before concluding, I want to briefly circle back to the Justice Department’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative, which I mentioned towards the beginning of my remarks. One goal of the Initiative is to better coordinate and expand our enforcement efforts – to work closely with federal, state and local enforcement agencies, and with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, to ensure that we are identifying and addressing the areas in which we can best assist the military community. We will continue to raise awareness of these issues in our discussions with military leadership, as well as with the JAG Corps, which provides legal counseling on base. But we also encourage victims of to come forward and complain. Too often a violation of the rights of servicemembers – particularly financial fraud -- goes unreported because victims feel embarrassed or foolish, or because they think that nothing will happen. But only when you complain is it possible for you to get the help you need. And only when we know there is a problem can we work to stop it.
We also want to make sure that we are doing all we can to ensure that you are aware of the legal protections available to you, and of how to take advantage of these protections if you encounter illegal practices. And because we can’t prosecute our way out of every problem, we are engaging in and supporting consumer education where possible to prevent veterans and servicemembers like you from becoming victims of financial fraud and other illegal activity in the first place.
Our efforts in this Initiative are led by three career Department of Justice attorneys with strong ties to the military community, including Director Silas Darden, a Major in the Air Force Reserves, who is here today. These attorneys serve as a central point of contact on issues affecting servicemembers and veterans so that we may ensure that all available tools are used to address each problem or concern. We want to make sure that all of you and your colleagues across the country, know that this resource is there and how to tap into it.
Going forward, we hope to further strengthen our comprehensive legal support and protection network for servicemembers, veterans and families so that you may focus on your important service to our country.
Thank you again for the invitation to be here today. I look forward to meeting many more of you and to hearing your input on how the Department of Justice can better help you and your families live securely in this country that you protect and defend. Thank you for your time and thank you for your service.