Justice News

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker Delivers Remarks to the Department of Justice Rural and Tribal Elder Justice Summit
Des Moines, IA
United States
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Marc for that kind introduction and thank you for your leadership as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.  I think you’ll agree with me that it’s one of the best jobs in the world.

This is a distinguished crowd.  Thank you to:

  • Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller
  • Six U.S. Attorneys: Bryan Schroder, Trent Shores, Ron Parsons, Andrew Murray, Pete Deegan, and Marc Krickbaum
  • the head of our Office of Justice Programs and former U.S. Attorney for Northern Iowa, Matt Dummermuth,
  • Katie Sullivan, the head of our Office on Violence Against Women,
  • Darlene Hutchinson, the Director of our Office for Victims of Crime,
  • Assistant Agriculture Secretary Anne Hazlett,
  • Assistant Secretary Lance Robertson of HHS,
  • SEC Regional Director Joel Levin,
  • Postal Inspector Guy Cottrell,
  • Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Nancy Berryhill,
  • Director Deborah Cox Roush of Senior Corps, and
  • A special thanks to all those who made this event possible, especially Toni Bacon, Andy Mao, Kate Peterson, and their teams at the Elder Justice Initiative and the Office for Victims of Crime.

Thank you all for being here for this summit.  I think this turnout shows how important these issues are to the Department of Justice and to the Trump administration.

It’s good to be home.  Des Moines is my home.  This is where I played football, where I practiced law, where I prosecuted criminals as a United States Attorney, and it’s where I’m raising my family.

Iowa shaped my values.

One of those Iowa values is that we respect our elders.  We recognize the debt that we owe to our parents and grandparents.

Many seniors in Iowa and across America spent their whole lives working, saving, and sacrificing so that they could enjoy a secure and peaceful retirement.  And under President Trump their 401(k)s are looking good.

But criminals can try to take it all away with one phone call, one letter, or even one email.

Each year, an estimated $3 billion are stolen or defrauded from millions of American seniors.  Through so-called grandparent scams, fake prizes or even outright extortion, criminals target our seniors to rob them of their hard-earned savings and their peace of mind.

And it appears as though this threat is only growing.  The Senate Aging Committee's Fraud Hotline received twice as many reports in 2016 as it received in 2015.

These fraud schemes can happen to anyone. And so I hope that no one will feel ashamed to come forward and report if they’ve been a victim.  Some of my family members here in Iowa have received these phone calls.  Some of you have, too.

At the Department of Justice, we acknowledge that rural areas are especially vulnerable to these crimes.

In tightly knit communities like the one I grew up in, people are generous and they develop a sense of trust with one another.

Criminals look at that and they see dollar signs.

Oftentimes local law enforcement in rural communities have to cover large areas of land with only a small number of officers.  They don’t have the time or the resources to investigate fraud schemes that are often national or even international in scope.

Fortunately, the Department of Justice has their backs.  As President Donald Trump has said, this administration supports state and local law enforcement 100 percent.

In this administration, we are well aware that 85 percent of law enforcement officers in this country serve at the state and local levels.  We know that we can’t achieve our goals without them.

Over the past year we have taken historic new action to support our state and local partners and to keep our seniors safe.

This year our U.S. Attorneys’ offices have each designated an elder justice coordinator to help prevent crime by educating seniors about scams and other threats.  Over just nine months, our elder justice coordinators participated in nearly 200 training, outreach, and coordination meetings attended by approximately 7,000 people.

Our elder justice coordinators are also customizing our strategy to protect seniors in their district and coordinating our prosecutions with state and local partners.  That will help us complete more cases and secure more convictions.

In February, the Department conducted the largest elder fraud enforcement action in American history.  We charged more than 200 defendants with fraud against elderly Americans and we brought civil actions against dozens more. The defendants in these cases allegedly stole from more than one million American seniors of more than half a billion dollars.

Just a few weeks ago, the Department extended a deferred prosecution agreement with a financial services company in Dallas.  This company allegedly knew about criminals using their services for money laundering, but didn’t do anything about it.  Some of their employees even took part in the schemes—including grandparent scams and fake prize scams targeting the elderly.  In exchange for avoiding prosecution, the company is forfeiting $125 million which the Department will provide to the victims.  The company has also agreed to implement anti-money laundering protections to prevent these crimes from ever happening again.

There are a lot of other cases that we could talk about—but I’ll just mention two right here in Iowa.

This year, a total of 33 defendants in Dubuque—11 at the federal level and 22 at the local level—have been convicted for a grandparent scam against a total of 285 American seniors.  The defendants defrauding more than $750,000 and then wiring it to their co-conspirators in the Dominican Republic.  Now they’ve been held accountable.

At the federal level, these cases were prosecuted by AUSA Tony Morfitt of our Elder Justice Task Force—Tony, great job.

In August, a jury convicted a man from outside of Des Moines for convincing elderly Iowans to sell off their investments and buy insurance from him.  Instead of buying the insurance as promised, the defendant used most of the funds for personal expenses like remodeling his house and buying two new Harley Davidsons.  I’m pleased to report that that house and those motorcycles have now been forfeited. 

This case was investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by Adam Kerndt and Mikaela Shotwell.  Great work.

These are important accomplishments.  We have increased the resources dedicated to these cases and we have increased our effectiveness in prosecuting them.

But there is more to do.  And so today I am announcing our next steps.

First of all, we are improving training for our U.S. Attorneys’ offices. 

Earlier this year the Department’s Elder Justice Initiative published its Elder Abuse Guide for Law Enforcement or EAGLE.  EAGLE contains helpful information for prosecutors, including overviews of state and local law as well as best practices for evidence collection, interviewing older adults, and for documenting elder abuse.  EAGLE is free and available right now to every law enforcement officer in the country.

Today I am announcing that the next edition of our Journal of Justice Policy and the Law—formerly known as the USA Bulletin—will focus on Elder Justice.  It will also be the longest bulletin we’ve ever published since we started it back in 1953.  These bulletins are public, and so they can be used by state and local prosecutors as well as our U.S. Attorneys’ offices.  That will provide the knowledge and insights of some of the top experts on elder justice to the prosecutors who are on the front lines.

Second, we are investing in services for seniors who have been victimized by criminals.

I am announcing today that over the next 11 months, our Office for Victims of Crime will provide nearly $18 million to help seniors who are victims of crime.  These funds can be used for priorities like legal services, telephone hotlines, and housing for seniors who have lost their homes—which is something that happens all too often.  We are using these OVC funds for a wider variety of services for seniors than ever before.

And finally, we are continuing to enforce the law aggressively and forcefully.

On October 1st, the Department began our Money Mule Initiative, which is a coordinated effort against the transnational criminal organizations who are defrauding our seniors.

We are hitting the fraudsters where it hurts—in the wallet.

Our prosecutors have found that fraudsters avoid using banks to launder the money they take from their victims. Instead, they launder it through so-called money mules—Americans who collect the money and then send it overseas.

Oftentimes these are co-conspirators—as in the Dubuque case that I mentioned a moment ago.  But sometimes they are simply good people who have been tricked into thinking that they are doing charity work or working for a legitimate business. 

Working with our Postal Inspectors, FBI agents, and other law enforcement partners, we have identified a number of these money mules across America.  We have even been able to determine which ones have been tricked into this work and which ones are knowing and willful conspirators.

In the first case, we knock on their door and we explain to them what’s really going on.  We ask them to sign a letter acknowledging that it’s wrong and promising to stop.  That in itself is shutting off large quantities of money for the fraudsters.

And in the second case—when we determine that they are part of a conspiracy—we are filing civil actions and taking them to court.

Since October 1, we’ve taken action to stop 400 money mules across 65 districts.  These involve everything from grandparent scams to romance scams, fake lotteries, IRS imposters, and fake tech support schemes.

The FBI and our Postal Inspectors have interviewed 300 money mules and sent 300 warning letters.  We’ve charged 10 defendants and filed 25 civil actions.  We’ve executed search warrants across America, including here in the Southern District of Iowa.

These are impressive numbers. 

Our goal is to reduce crime and protect America’s seniors.  And we have good reasons to believe that our work with our law enforcement partners is reducing crime and having a real impact on the seniors of this country.

The Postal Inspection Service has estimated that payments by mass mail fraud victims to foreign post office boxes has dropped by 94 percent since 2016—from 150,000 per month to approximately 10,000 per month now.

There are many causes for that, but that is a remarkable achievement—and I want to thank everyone who has played a role in our efforts.

We are going to keep up this pace. 

We are going to continue to provide our prosecutors and our state and local partners with the resources that they need.  And we’re going to keep putting fraudsters in jail.

I want to thank each of you again for your contribution to this effort.  Each of us has a role to play—and certainly not just those of us in government.  All of us can be on the lookout for fraud schemes and report suspected criminal activity.

If we do that—and if we remain vigilant—then we can ensure that every senior has the safety and peace of mind that they deserve.

Elder Justice
Indian Country Law and Justice
Updated November 19, 2018