Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you for the kind introduction, and General [Michelle] Johnson, for having me here. And thank you everyone for the warm welcome. It is truly an honor to be invited to be here today. The United States Air Force Academy is a special place, educating and training men and women who will go on to play leading roles in our nation. I am grateful for the opportunity to see your beautiful campus and to witness firsthand your commitment to completing the serious work that will lead to your commission. As talented individuals with bright futures, your decision to enroll at the academy and dedicate yourself to serving our country is laudable.
At the Department of Justice, our number one priority, like yours, is protecting the American people. This work includes investigating and prosecuting individuals and companies for everything from tax scams and financial fraud to drug trafficking and cyber crime. We also play an active role in the government’s counterterrorism efforts. And the Department of Justice is responsible for defending the actions of the Department of Defense and other national security agencies when they are challenged in court. Through my work on these issues, I understand how vital it is for the civilian side of the government to more fully understand the unique pressures and needs of the military, but also its culture and traditions. And, importantly, we must understand and appreciate the essential contributions that individual servicemembers make. That is why I am so pleased to be here today.
With the few minutes I have, I would like to focus on the rights and interests of the individual servicemember, and what the Department of Justice is doing to protect them. Last year, in an effort to expand upon the Justice Department’s existing work on behalf of servicemembers, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced the creation of the department’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative. When we launched the initiative, our goal was to make it easier for the department to use all available resources and legal authorities to protect servicemembers, veterans and their families. We want to better understand and address the legal challenges facing servicemembers while on active duty, that veterans face when returning home and that families face when their loved one is deployed.
The backdrop for this work is a series of laws that are designed specifically to protect your rights as members of the military. These laws protect the financial rights of servicemembers. They promote civilian employment for airmen, soliders and sailors leaving the military, and guard against reservists from losing their civilian jobs when they are deployed, employment and civilian voting rights of servicemembers. And they ensure that when you are stationed away from home, you won’t face unreasonable obstacles to voting in elections. These laws recognize the unfortunate reality that many servicemembers, and especially junior ones, are targeted by unscrupulous individuals both during and after military service. Servicemembers have had their cars repossessed and their homes illegally foreclosed while overseas. They have been targeted by financial scams that threaten their hard-earned savings. And states have failed to comply with their obligations to make sure that servicemembers stationed overseas get ballots in time to have them counted on Election Day.
We at the Justice Department are committed to aggressively enforcing the criminal and civil laws designed to protect servicemembers, veterans and their families. That is why Attorney General Loretta Lynch strongly supports the work that the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative is doing. I’m honored to pass along her greetings. It is why the U.S. Attorney for Colorado, John Walsh, is here today, and why he and his fellow U.S. Attorneys consistently have seized opportunities to protect members of the military serving in their districts. John in particular has been an outstanding leader in strengthening ties between law enforcement agencies and the military installations in their area (and on dozens of other issues, throughout his time in the federal government).
Today I would like to share with you a few stories about the scams that can hurt members of the military – and talk about what the Justice Department can do once we learn of the unlawful conduct.
In my discussions with leaders from across the military, I have repeatedly been told that they view protecting servicemembers from scams and fraud as a force-readiness issue. If airmen are pre-occupied or concerned about legal issues, they aren’t fully focused on the task at hand. Your future role as leaders of airmen confers on you the responsibility to let your servicemembers know to speak up and contact legal aid on base if something doesn’t seem right. As officers, you will be in the best position to recognize when an airman under your authority might be having his or her rights violated, to encourage that person to get help – and to carry forward the message that the Justice Department and other federal and state law enforcement agencies are ready to do something about it.
In fact, many of our largest victories on behalf of servicemembers can be traced back to the actions of an individual servicemember. One of the Air Force’s core values is “Service before Self.” I understand that it is not in the nature of airmen to complain. But the reality is, if there are illegal actions being taken or scams targeting our airmen, one individual speaking out can have a positive affect for his or her fellow servicemembers. By speaking out, that individual is doing an act of service for others.
For example, Army Specialist Joshua Davis had just started his basic training when his car was repossessed in the middle of the night. He contacted Army Legal Assistance. Specialist Davis’s complaint made its way to the Justice Department and the resulting investigation revealed evidence not only that the repossession of Specialist Davis’s car was illegal, but that hundreds of other servicemembers had suffered similar illegal repossessions at the hands of the same lender. This led to a settlement with motor vehicle lender Santander Consumer USA, paying more than $9 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 servicemembers calling attention to conduct that was also affecting many of his peers.
Another recent multimillion-dollar settlement began with a single telephone call to the Department of Justice from a single servicemember assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. The law requires credit card companies to reduce the interest rate on pre-service credit cards to six percent per year while a servicemember is on active duty. That servicemember claimed that Capital One had refused to reduce his interest rate, despite having been provided with both a written notice and a copy of his military orders, as the law requires. After receiving the call, the department opened an investigation that found a range of conduct by Capital One in violation of the financial protections servicemembers have. The result was an over $12 million settlement with Capital One, much of which went directly to the airmen, sailors and soldiers who had been forced to pay more on their credit card bills than they should have been.
Both of these settlements were obtained under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act – the 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. This law allows servicemembers to focus on deployment and to reduce the stress placed on family members while their loved ones are away. It also recognizes that servicemembers frequently have your lives disrupted with little advance notice, which may have serious financial implications for them and their families. Through our aggressive enforcement of the SCRA, we hope to ease the financial burden of servicemembers by providing relief from some credit obligations and court proceedings while members are on active duty.
In addition to our actions against Santander and Capital One, the Department of Justice used SCRA to obtain $60 million in compensation to nearly 78,000 servicemembers who were charged excess interest on their student loans by Navient Corporation, a student loan servicer. And the department recently reached a settlement with five of the nation’s largest mortgage servicers, called the National Mortgage Settlement, which will provide over $311 million to 2,413 servicemembers for wrongful mortgage foreclosures.
I’m proud of the impact our actions have had on the lives of individual servicemembers. Last month, the department received an email from a servicemember who recently received money from the National Mortgage Settlement. In that message, the servicemember wrote that the day he “packed up his tattered remains and moved out” of his home, a home he lost through foreclosure while in military service, a home he had “built from the ground up,” was the worst day of his life. The servicemember went on to say that after receiving the settlement money, he felt as if the biggest burden of his life has been lifted, and he now knows that “behind the scenes there are representatives fighting just as hard for our rights here at home as the soldiers who travel the world trying to keep freedom a God-given right for all.”
We also recently received an email from an attorney in the Legal Assistance Office in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate at Fort Polk, Louisiana. A soldier’s spouse had come to the office bearing settlement paperwork that had been mailed to her under the National Mortgage Settlement. Initially, both the spouse and the attorneys in the legal assistance office thought it was too good to be true, that the settlement paperwork was a scam and there was no way that this servicemember was, in fact, eligible to receive a six-figure payment. They were wrong. The settlement is very much real and is out there to compensate servicemembers for the wrongful, devastating loss of their homes.
And what happened to this family? In the words of the Fort Polk attorney, “She came into the office about a month ago with a big smile on her face saying that she and her husband had received a check for over $150,000. All of us here at the office were as excited as they were. If you could have seen us, you would have thought we all got a $150,000 check.” This attorney added that the check “made a struggling young military couple very, very happy.”
Hearing that outcome, knowing that the department can impact an individual’s life in such a profound way, is why I have made the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative one of my top priorities as a leader in the Department of Justice.
We want to ensure that the Department of Justice will be there for our servicemembers not only when there is a widespread scram, but also when there is a single servicemember and a single violation.
That’s true, too, even if a servicemember didn’t lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because of a violation. For instance, we recently brought the department’s first landlord-tenant case under the SCRA, involving one servicemember who was renting a single-family home, the only rental property owned by this particular landlord. The servicemember in this case had received PCS orders to move from Virginia to Georgia, and had sought to terminate her lease early. Although the servicemember did everything she was supposed to under the law, the landlord refused to return her security deposit, pet deposit and rent payments. After the department filed its lawsuit and then was able to negotiate a settlement that saw all of $3,900 the servicemember was due returned, along with an additional $1,750.
Those numbers seem small only relative to the budget of a federal agency – not relative to the budget of a household. Five thousand six hundred and fifty dollars is a big deal to a military family, or, indeed, to almost any American family. And, against a backdrop of making sure that servicemembers can focus on their work rather than on illegal threats to their financial security, that means it is a big deal to the Justice Department, too.
While these financial settlements demonstrate dramatic and material results, the Justice Department is also committed to protecting your less visible but no less vitally important rights. Sometimes servicemembers and their families can face difficulty voting while they are overseas. All of you could potentially be assigned to places like Ramstein, Kunsan or Al Udeid. The department 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. Many servicemembers are unaware of this right, or can be confused by the different laws and regulations governing elections. They may require your assistance and support as they follow the paper trails to the proper documents. Here again, the Justice Department is on the job with you. We 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.
The Justice Department is committed to identifying and addressing the areas in which we can best assist the military community. That’s why we have put together a team of individuals dedicated to servicemembers and veterans issues with strong ties to the military community, including Director Silas Darden, who is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserves, and Assistant Director Andrew Braniff. Both Silas and Andrew are here today.
Over the past year, they have brought together leaders from various federal agencies focused on consumer protection, they have provided information and resources to U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country to ensure that the department’s efforts aren’t just happening in Washington, and they have facilitated an on-going dialogue between the Department of Justice and our Armed Forces – that includes everyone from leaders at the Pentagon to enlisted soldiers at bases across the country. These attorneys serve as a central point of contact on issues affecting servicemembers, and we want to make sure that you and your colleagues know that this resource is there.
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. We also will strive to provide people in positions of leadership with the information and tools necessary to educate others not only on their rights, but also on their responsibility to hold individuals accountable for their treatment of servicemembers and veterans. I can’t emphasize enough the important role that you will play in helping protect your airmen from illegal actions. Too often a violation of the rights of servicemembers goes unreported because victims feel embarrassed or foolish, or because they think that nothing will happen even if they speak up. But they need to know – and to hear from you officers – that only when they complain is it possible for them to get the help they need. And only when we know there is a problem can we work to stop it.
We at the department consider our relationship with the military to be a partnership, and we are ready to put expend time and resources to help protect servicemembers. We hope that the Justice Department’s legal support and protection network for servicemembers, veterans and families allows you and your airmen to focus on your important service to our country.
Thank you again for being here today. There is such a proud history and tradition here, and I look forward to learning more about this institution and meeting more of you before the day’s end. Thank you for your time and thank you for your service.