Justice News

Associate Attorney General Tony West Delivers Remarks at the National Association of Attorneys General Winter Meeting
United States
Monday, February 24, 2014

Good afternoon. Thank you General Van Hollen, for that kind introduction and for your leadership as President of the NAAG.  What J.B. is doing in Wisconsin -- whether it is combating heath care fraud and abuse, fighting human trafficking or protecting consumers from fraud -- that is emblematic of the important work that all of you are doing to improve the daily lives of Americans across the country, and I thank you for it.
Let me also thank James McPherson for his years of steady leadership of this organization and for inviting me to speak this afternoon. And my thanks to Erin Schechter for all her assistance.

It is great to be back with the state Attorneys General.  I know the critical role you play as the chief law enforcement officials in your states.  I know this from first-hand experience:  as many of you know, 15 years ago I was a Special Assistant Attorney General working in the California Attorney General's office.  There I had the opportunity to collaborate with some of you and many of your offices on a whole range of issues such as identity theft, high-tech crime, consumer protection and antitrust enforcement.

My experience in the California Attorney General's office taught me the importance of the state AGs, and how you are an essential link in the law enforcement chain, working on tight budgets and often under complex political constraints yet always managing to do the work that safeguards our rights, protects our consumers and keeps our families safe.

And today, I believe the work you do is more important than ever.  Indeed, over the last 20 years, some of the Justice Department’s most significant law enforcement priorities -- securing the homeland, fighting financial fraud, protecting consumers -- these enforcement areas have been priorities for you, as well. 

And, although each of you still faces issues that are unique to your 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, on the majority of issues, we face the same challenges, serve the same public, and seek the same type of practical, common sense solutions.

And, across all of these common challenges, another fact remains the same:  We are stronger when we work together. 

Let me give you three concrete examples of areas where we we've been able to enhance our efforts on shared goals by working together. 
The first is in the area of financial fraud. 

There can be no doubt that we share a common goal to hold accountable those whose actions contributed to the last financial crisis, which was felt not just at the national or global level, but in the countless communities you represent, as well.

That is why the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force -- the broadest coalition of federal, state and local law enforcement and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat financial fraud -- counts NAAG as a key member. 

While the Task Force's goals are ambitious, its foundation is simple: Those in all levels of the government charged with protecting the public from fraud and abuse cannot work in silos.  Instead, we must be cohesive, coordinated, and committed to a common purpose, because working together, we can achieve more than we can separately. 

And, our partnership in combating financial fraud has achieved significant results.

In November of last year, we concluded a landmark $13 billion settlement with JP Morgan relating to the sale and issuance of residential mortgage-backed securities in the years leading up to the financial crisis.  That settlement -- the largest settlement with a single entity in American history -- included not just the Department of Justice and other federal agencies but also several state AGs. 

The scope and scale of the settlement with JP Morgan would not have been possible without our partnership with states.  That is because you all bring a whole set of additional enforcement tools to the table that go beyond those we have at the federal level. 

And through that resolution, we were able to secure accountability from JP Morgan and obtain significant consumer relief for Americans in communities throughout the country -- an historic result achieved with your help. 

Another reminder of the power of our partnership is the parallel civil lawsuits filed by the Department of Justice and nearly half of the states against Standard & Poor’s – the largest credit rating agency in the world.  As you know, the United States alleges that S&P defrauded investors who lost billions of dollars in structured finance products by issuing ratings that were biased by S&P’s concerns about market share and revenues. 

And, since filing our action -- which we announced with 13 state Attorneys General -- we have worked hand-in-glove with many of you, led by Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, who have filed lawsuits alleging similar misconduct by S&P in the years leading up to the financial crisis. 

To me, these actions demonstrate not just our collective determination to demand accountability; they also illustrate how our respective enforcement tools complement each other.  

Sometimes your authority -- such as your consumer protection statutes -- allows you to be more nimble than your federal counterparts.  And when combined with the weight of the federal hammer, through partnership and cooperation, the authority of any one state becomes a force-multiplier for accountability and deterrence. 

Now, a second area where I think our combined efforts pay important -- and lifesaving -- dividends is an issue that is a top priority for NAAG and for many of you here today; something the President has declared to be one of the great human causes of our time. 
The modern-day slavery trade that is human trafficking strikes at the very heart of our most fundamental notions of human dignity and human decency.  And it takes various forms, whether children supplied as sex objects to the highest bidder or individuals coerced into involuntary servitude.

As the Associate Attorney General, I am responsible for overseeing components that have a role in prosecuting human trafficking cases, providing victim services, funding human trafficking research, and training law enforcement and educating communities to identify and rescue trafficked persons. 

Through our Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit in the Civil Rights Division, our Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section in the Criminal Division, and our U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country, the Department of Justice initiated 128 federal human trafficking prosecutions in 2012 alone, charging 200 defendants. 

But as you all know, success in this fight requires our collective attention, resolve, and cooperation, since it is often state and local law enforcement agencies who initially encounter victims of trafficking in the course of their daily operations.

That is why since 2009, through our Office of Justice Programs, the Department has awarded grants of over $16 million to support enhanced collaborative task forces across the country that bring together federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel -- including many of you -- and trafficking victim service providers.  Since 2004, these task forces have identified over 3,000 persons as potential victims of human trafficking and trained over 85,000 law enforcement officers and others in identifying the signs of human trafficking and its victims. 
And the effectiveness of these task force models has led to concrete results in our efforts to curb human trafficking in our country.

Just last month, Daniel Burton of Capitol Heights, Maryland, was sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison followed by lifetime supervised release after pleading guilty to the sex trafficking of a thirteen-year-old girl.  Burton approached the girl for her phone number while she was walking near her home.  He recruited her to engage in prostitution, caused her to have sex with many men who responded to online ads for sexual services that Burton posted, and kept all the money she earned while providing her with drugs and alcohol.

In the same district, last November, German de Jesus Ventura was sentenced to 35 years in prison for running a sex trafficking ring that exploited young women, many of them undocumented migrants, using threats and violence to compel them into prostitution in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and New York. 

Critical to the success of both cases was the coordination among local, state, and federal members of the multi-disciplinary Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force, which was formed in 2007 under the leadership of U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, Maryland Attorney General and former NAAG President Doug Gansler, and the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City. 

And state attorneys general across the country -- from California and Washington to New Mexico, Ohio and Massachusetts -- many of you have led the way in strengthening our law enforcement tools and improving victim services by championing state legislation that criminalizes human trafficking in your states, increases penalties, and provides opportunities for victims to heal and move forward.  Your efforts and partnership in this fight are making a critical difference for victims throughout the nation.

Finally, let me highlight one more area where I think our shared commitment and combined efforts are making a critical difference.
As many of you know, last year Attorney General Holder set forth a menu of criminal justice reforms he has called the "Smart on Crime" initiative. 

Now, I know the Attorney General will be here tomorrow to talk about that initiative in detail, so I'll only discuss one element that I know many of you are involved in:  the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or "JRI."

JRI brings state leaders, local stakeholders, private partners, and federal officials together to comprehensively reform corrections and criminal justice practices by providing meaningful reentry for inmates returning to our communities.

Every year, some 700,000 people are released from America’s prisons, and millions more cycle through local jails. And if they’re not prepared, studies show that they’re likely to re-offend and be re-arrested. In fact, the last major study of recidivism rates found that two out of three released prisoners were re-arrested for a new offense, and about half were re-incarcerated. 

Now, you know better than most that this has a profound impact on the communities to which these inmates return.  You know that when reentry fails, the costs -- both societal and economic -- are high.

In recent years, no fewer than 17 states -- supported by the Department, and led by governors, state attorneys general and legislators of both parties -- have directed funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like treatment and supervision, that are designed to reduce recidivism. 

In Texas, investments in drug treatment for nonviolent offenders and changes to parole policies brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year alone.  Similar efforts in Kentucky are projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years, saving more than $400 million.  From Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio to Pennsylvania and Hawaii, reinvestment and serious reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources.

And let me be clear: these measures have not compromised public safety.  In fact, many states have seen drops in recidivism rates at the same time their prison populations were declining.  And while we are still working to slow the expansion of our federal prison system, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population – including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year.

So, these are three examples of areas where our cooperation and partnership have enhanced our efforts to achieve common goals. 
But, we have more work to do.

For instance, we can do more together to curb the occurrence of violence against women in this nation, an area that benefits greatly from increased collaboration between state and federal law enforcement efforts.

We must continue to work together on financial fraud because there is still accountability to be had and damage to mitigate.
And we can do more to enhance our collaboration around law enforcement in rural America, particularly in Indian country, which pose unique difficulties and where, working together, we can greatly increase our effectiveness.

As we’ve seen time and again, while we come from different parts of the country, find familiarity in different backgrounds, belong to different political parties, our voices and our work are enhanced when we come together, when we work together, when we share information and enforcement tools to deter pervasive and common threats.

The American people we serve expect that of us, and they deserve no less.
Thank you.  

Consumer Protection
Updated October 22, 2014