As prepared for delivery
Thank you, Dean [Chris] Guthrie. I appreciate your kind words, and I want to thank you – and all of the faculty and board members, administrators, alumni, and students here today – for welcoming me to this beautiful campus. It is a pleasure to be here – and a privilege to be joined by Attorney General [Bob] Cooper, Congressman [Jim] Cooper, United States Attorney [Jerry] Martin, and so many current – and future – leaders.
For well over a century now, Vanderbilt has served as an important meeting ground – where issues of consequence are discussed and addressed. This University also has distinguished itself as a training ground – for some of our nation’s greatest scholars, advocates, policymakers, and – as we’ve seen this week – basketball players.
Before I go any further, I want to congratulate you all on this year’s SEC Championship – and on yesterday’s victory against Harvard. I also want to thank each of you for – quite frankly – showing up today. I realize that it’s the first Friday of “March Madness” – and that this entire campus has a serious case of basketball fever. But the fact that hundreds of you are gathered here speaks to the importance of this discussion, and of the wonderful Vanderbilt tradition – of the Cecil Sims Lecture Series – that we’ve gathered to extend.
Although nearly a full century has passed since Cecil Sims graduated from this law school with top honors, across the academic campus he loved – and in the communities, courtrooms, and State House where he made his mark – his example still serves as a reminder that the actions of a single person can make a difference in countless lives.
Throughout his career – as he became a leader in Tennessee’s legal, civic, and academic communities – his commitment to expanding opportunity, to combating segregation and discrimination, and to serving his fellow citizens was extraordinary. But, as a Vanderbilt alum, it was hardly exceptional.
Generations of young people have graduated from this university – not only with a first-rate education – but also with a deeply ingrained passion to right wrongs, to improve communities, and to assist and empower our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
Of course, I’m not the first to recognize this defining characteristic of Vanderbilt’s culture. Nearly half a century ago, when President Kennedy visited this campus, he observed the same thing. Sharing the stage with my good friend John Seigenthaler – who I’m glad is here with us today – President Kennedy rightly predicted that, “liberty and learning will [always] be…touchstones of Vanderbilt.” And he noted that, with fidelity to these ideals, this University would continue to stand for both human rights and human enlightenment.
That was May of 1963. At the time, this institution – the first private law school in the South to integrate its campus – was an indicator of the progress that our nation was about to make. And many of its students and faculty members were among our nation’s most vocal advocates for social justice.
In fact, during President Kennedy’s historic visit, the Law School’s long-serving Dean, John Wade, appealed to the President – just as he had to leaders in Congress; and to my predecessor, and John Seigenthaler’s former boss, Attorney General Robert Kennedy – to keep up the fight for civil rights and equal access to education. In the weeks that followed, with the support of many Vanderbilt faculty members, Dean Wade took this message directly to Governor George Wallace – and rallied other lawyers and academic leaders from around the nation to join in the call for Alabama – the last of the southern states to end segregation in its schools – to fully and finally integrate its classrooms.
By June – as our country held its breath; as our National Guard stood watch; and as our nation’s Department of Justice, as well as legions of civil rights advocates, stood firm – a young woman named Vivian Malone, who would later become my sister-in-law, was one of two African-American students who stepped past Governor Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama.
This achievement would be followed by many other long-overdue steps toward inclusion and opportunity. And, today, as our nation’s Attorney General, I have the extraordinary privilege – and the solemn duty – of enforcing the laws that ensure the civil rights of all Americans.
For me, and for the entire Department of Justice, this work remains a priority. This is evident in the remarkable progress that’s been made by this Administration – especially when it comes to expanding access to legal services; to combating hate crimes, community violence, and human trafficking; and to strengthening law enforcement efforts so that – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our immigrant communities and our voting booths – the rights of all Americans are protected. As we have signaled repeatedly over the last three years – and just this week, in Texas – we will be vigilant in ensuring that all eligible citizens have the chance to participate in the work of their government and to exercise their fundamental right to vote.
For today’s Department of Justice, in many ways and in far too many places, these efforts have never been more important. Although many of the landmark battles of the civil rights movement are behind us, the struggle to protect the liberty, security, safety, and best interests of all Americans goes on. And the challenges before us are clear.
As President Obama recently described it, in this year’s State of the Union Address, the defining issue of our time is how to keep the American Dream – and what he has called, “the basic American promise” – alive for future generations.
Today, I’d like to tell you about some of the ways in which the Justice Department is working to do just that – to hold accountable those who have violated our laws and abused the public trust; to restore faith in our financial markets and institutions; and to support and seek justice for those who’ve been devastated by our nation’s recent economic crisis.
Here in Nashville, and in cities and communities nationwide, the signs – and the scars – of this crisis are not hard to find. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and their homes, as well as their hard-earned savings and financial security.
In response, over the last three years, the Justice Department – and a host of our federal, state, and local partners – have come together in an unprecedented national effort to combat and prevent a wide range of financial fraud crimes. From securities, bank, and investment fraud; to mortgage, consumer, and health-care fraud – our enforcement efforts have been nothing less than historic. That’s certainly been true of the work that’s being led by two critical partners who are here with us, and deserve a round of applause: U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin and Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper.
Along with their outstanding teams – which include a number of Vanderbilt Law School alums – and in collaboration with their counterparts across the country and with the Justice Department’s Civil and Criminal Divisions – Jerry and Bob are helping to make meaningful, measurable progress in the fight to ensure stability, accountability, and – above all – justice in the wake of once-in-a-century financial challenges.
In this fight, our strategy is aggressive, and – as we’ve seen here in Nashville, under the leadership U.S. Attorney Martin – it is working. When Jerry took office in 2010, just under $3 million was recovered in the Middle District of Tennessee under the False Claims Act. He essentially tripled the resources that were being devoted to pursuing these cases – and, last year, he and his team obtained judgments and settlements in excess of $105 million, most of which was related to his robust efforts to combat health-care fraud.
On a variety of fronts, Jerry and his team are building on these achievements. In just the last few months, they’ve indicted more than 20 individuals for Ponzi schemes, bank fraud, and other activities that resulted in roughly $100 million in losses to investors, financial institutions and taxpayers. This outstanding work reflects the unprecedented steps that the Justice Department has taken at the national level to address the economic crisis – by spearheading the work of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, the largest coalition ever assembled to combat financial fraud. Since President Obama launched it in 2009, the Task Force has been a model of success.
Already, its work has resulted in charges – and lengthy prison sentences – against CEOs, CFOs, corporate owners, board members, presidents, general counsels, and other executives of Wall Street firms, hedge funds, and banks involved in financial fraud activities. In addition to advancing these and other successful prosecutions, the Task Force has helped us to identify and focus on priority areas. For example, in recent weeks, it has given rise to two important working groups that will help take our comprehensive anti-fraud efforts to new heights.
In January, I convened the first-ever meeting of the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, which brings together a variety of partners in order to marshal and strengthen current state and federal efforts to investigate and prosecute abuses in the residential mortgage-backed securities market. And, through another multi-level partnership between the Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development, other agencies, and 49 state attorneys general – including Attorney General Cooper – we recently achieved a landmark $25 billion agreement with the nation’s top five mortgage servicers.
This marked the largest joint federal-state settlement in our nation’s history. And it will provide nearly $150 million to struggling homeowners and communities here in this state – bringing much-needed assistance to Tennesseans who lost their homes in the mortgage crisis, or owe more than their house is worth, or need help refinancing to avoid foreclosure.
Of course, this settlement will not – by itself – cure all that ails our housing market. But – combined with other measures we are taking – it is a step in the right direction, toward the housing recovery that this state – and our entire nation – so badly needs.
In addition, the Justice Department is continuing to bring the full resources of the Task Force to bear in combating other types of financial fraud. For example, over the last two fiscal years, we’ve indicted more than 2,100 individuals for mortgage-fraud related crimes. And, in 2011, the Civil Rights Division – through its new Fair Lending Unit – settled or filed a record number of cases – including a $335 million fair lending settlement, the largest in history – to hold financial institutions accountable for discriminatory practices directed at African and Hispanic Americans.
This type of collective action – across all levels of government, state boundaries, and party lines – is precisely what the challenges before us demand. It’s also what the American people deserve. And it’s why we’re bringing the same approach to our fight against financial fraud schemes that target consumers.
I’m extremely pleased to report that, during the last fiscal year, the Department’s Consumer Protection Branch achieved an astounding 95 percent conviction rate. We recovered over $900 million in criminal and civil fines – and obtained sentences totaling over 125 years of imprisonment against more than 30 individuals.
In order to build on this work, just last month, I convened the first meeting of another newly-formed Task Force component – the Consumer Protection Working Group – which will enhance civil and criminal enforcement of consumer fraud. This Working Group met for a second time exactly two weeks ago, and it will also focus on raising public awareness about common schemes – and ways to report them – so that potential victims have the information they need to fight back.
I’m confident that the recent efforts we’ve launched will allow the Justice Department – and our law enforcement partners – to build on the momentum we’ve created. And there is perhaps no better illustration of this progress than our groundbreaking work to combat health-care fraud.
Over the last fiscal year alone – in cooperation with the Department of Health and Human Services and other partners, and by utilizing authorities provided under the False Claims Act and other critical statues – we were able to recover nearly $4.1 billion in funds that were stolen or taken improperly from federal health-care programs. This is an unprecedented achievement – and it represents the highest amount ever recovered in a single year.
At the same time, we opened more than 1,100 new criminal health-care fraud investigations, secured more than 700 convictions, and initiated nearly 1,000 new civil health-care fraud investigations. And – as Jerry Martin and his team have helped to make clear – our investments in this work are yielding extraordinary returns. In fact, over the last three years, for every dollar we spent combating health-care fraud, we’ve been able to return an average of seven dollars to the U.S. Treasury, the Medicare Trust Fund, and others.
Despite such stunning progress, this is no time to become complacent. And I can assure you that for me – for President Obama, and for our colleagues across the Administration, and for our government and law enforcement partners across this state – the fight against all types of financial fraud will continue to be a key area of focus.
But this critical work – of restoring stability, ensuring fairness, and protecting the interests, rights, and security of the American people – is not a responsibility that the Justice Department – or the whole of our nation’s government – can achieve on its own. Safeguarding the progress that has marked America’s history is a responsibility that we share. That’s true for every person here – even those of you who are still working to obtain your degree.
As the heirs – and beneficiaries – of this university’s tradition of excellence, you not only have a school legacy to extend, you have a future to build. This is your mission. And, at this precious and defining moment, it is also your breathtaking opportunity.
For everyone connected to this campus – where learning and liberty have long been touchstones – my hope is that you will allow these principles to serve as guideposts; and that you will use your talents and training – as so many Vanderbilt alumni have – to move our nation forward and to build a justice system that is worthy of our founding ideals.