Good morning and thank you, Laura [Duffy], for that kind introduction. And thanks to all of you here at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for welcoming me. It is an honor to be here with you today.
I have some key DOJ (Department of Justice) law enforcement colleagues with me today – nine United States Attorneys from around the country. These United States Attorneys are the chief federal law enforcement officers within each of their districts, including Alaska, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana and Nevada. Each of these U.S. Attorneys has a considerable military presence in his or her district. And of course I have with me Laura Duffy the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, which includes San Diego and Imperial Counties. I will have more to say a little later about the work Laura and her team and the other U.S. Attorneys are doing on your behalf.
Why are we here? We are in San Diego today to discuss ways the Department of Justice can better serve servicemembers, veterans and their families. Across the nation, our 93 U.S. Attorneys and their teams play a vital role in enforcing the laws that protect servicemembers and veterans. I am proud to have them with me here today.
I spoke at NASNI (Naval Air Station North Island) yesterday and learned a bit about your shared history – while Charles Lindbergh began his historic flight from NASNI, he trained here before his flight. It’s been incredible learning about the storied past of these two military installations, and about the men and women who serve here.
Your job as Marines is to protect us. And you are doing a great job at it. As law enforcement officials, we have a job too – that includes making sure the American consumer, including men and women in uniform, are treated fairly and receive the benefits of a competitive marketplace. We often talk about America’s promise of liberty and justice for all. That includes ensuring economic justice for all. And that is a key part of what we do at the Justice Department.
The issue of economic justice for our citizens is near and dear to me. I began my legal career at the Federal Trade Commission, as a consumer protection lawyer working for an agency dedicated to making sure consumers benefit from competition and are protected from businesses practices that are deceptive or unfair.
Most recently, I headed up the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice. There we worked hard to ensure economic justice for all Americans – we worked to ensure a more competitive airline industry; we challenged anticompetitive mergers, like AT&T trying to gobble up T-Mobile and Comcast trying to enhance its dominant position in the cable industry by merging with Time Warner; and we successfully prosecuted a conspiracy between Apple and e-book publishers that dramatically increased the cost of e-books. We not only exposed the conspiracy, we forced Apple and book publishers to refund over $600 million to consumers.
Today, as the number three at the Department of Justice, I oversee the work of department lawyers who fight every day to protect consumers through a variety of different means. That includes suing defense contractors who provided faulty or overpriced equipment to the military. It includes holding financial institutions accountable for mortgage fraud that triggered the Great Recession. And it includes ensuring that the food we eat and the prescription drugs we use are safe.
But let me talk about you and your families. The department is particularly committed to ensuring that servicemembers are not targeted by unscrupulous business practices. We know from painful experience that there are individuals and businesses who will try to take advantage of you and your families in times of stress, like when you are preparing for deployment or are stationed overseas. In serving our country, you are already sacrificing on our behalf. I want to talk with you today about the Department of Justice’s responsibility to ensure that you do not bear any additional unfair and unnecessary consequences for your service to country. The Department of Justice has an obligation to protect your rights at home, just as you are protecting us every day and every night.
The Department of Justice enforces three laws that were created specifically for servicemembers, veterans and their families. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, known as the SCRA, covers certain financial and housing problems you may face as a member of our military. A second law, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, known as USERRA, deals with employment issues. And the third, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, makes sure your vote is counted, wherever you are deployed.
Let me put some meat on the bones and talk about how these laws work for you and other servicemembers. After I’ve finished, I want to hear from you. Your situation may be unique to you, or it could be one of many violations by a giant company. The bottom line is that the Justice Department needs to work with you and your legal assistance JAGs and paralegals to make sure we have your back. We can’t bring cases we don’t know about, so we rely on servicemembers like you to bring these matters to our attention.
First, let’s talk about the SCRA – that’s the law designed to ease financial burdens on servicemembers during periods of military service. Some of its many protections include allowing you to get out an apartment lease when you receive a permanent change of station or are deployed for at least 90 days. The SCRA also limits the amount of interest you can be charged on certain financial obligations entered into prior to military service – such as credit card debt, automobile loans, mortgages and student loans – to no more than six percent per year. For mortgages, interest is capped at six percent during your entire period of military service and for one year thereafter. For all other obligations – including student loans – interest is capped at six percent during your military service. In order to receive this reduced rate of interest, you must provide your creditor with a copy of your military orders and a written notice within 180 days of the end of your military service. It’s as simple as that.
Unfortunately, some folks don’t honor this obligation to you. When that happens, the Justice Department enforces the SCRA by suing in federal court. Some of our cases involve thousands of violations by companies that are household names, such as Bank of America or Capital One. Others involve a single violation of the law by a single landlord renting property to a single servicemember. Under both scenarios, the Justice Department is committed to vigorously enforcing the law and holding bad actors accountable for their actions. We want to send a message that people cannot violate the rights of those who protect us, whether it’s one servicemember or thousands of servicemembers, without real and immediate consequences.
But how do you get our help? Let’s say you’ve tried to properly terminate your apartment lease without success. Your first line of defense is to seek assistance from one of the terrific military legal assistance lawyers on base, many of whom I met yesterday. But let’s say that these lawyers’ best efforts fail to resolve your problem because your landlord has dug in his heels. At that point, the JAG assisting you can ask the Chief of Military Legal Assistance to refer the matter to the Justice Department. We at the department, both back in D.C. and in the field, want these referrals, and we are staffed and equipped to handle them.
I encourage anyone who wants to know about all of the SCRA’s protections for military members to visit our website, servicemembers.gov. But for now, I’m going to give you a few examples of the many protections you have under this law, and how the Justice Department can enforce the law on your behalf.
As I said earlier, the SCRA caps interest on student loans at six percent while you are serving in the military. A few years ago, some servicemembers discovered that they were being charged excess interest on their student loans. They alerted us. We investigated. And we found that Sallie Mae, which services and collects on student loans, had failed to reduce the interest rates on loans held by tens of thousands of servicemembers. As a result, last year we forced Sallie Mae to refund over $60 million to 77,795 servicemembers for that excess interest charged. To bring this close to home, of the almost 78,000 checks, 5,749 went to servicemembers residing in California, including to more than 700 servicemembers living in San Diego.
The SCRA also requires that a claim on a servicemember’s property may not be enforced while the servicemember is on active duty, unless the company first goes to court and receives a court order. That means that you can’t sell of the contents of a servicemember’s storage unit without the court’s permission. Despite this requirement, Across Town Movers, a company with a storage facility right here in San Diego, did just that to U.S. Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Thomas E. Ward. In 2006, Master Chief Ward was deployed overseas, and before leaving town, he placed rare vintage car parts and other household items in an Across Town Movers storage locker. Then, despite the United States making all regularly scheduled payments on the storage locker, the company auctioned off the contents to the highest bidder.
The Navy brought this problem to United States Attorney Laura Duffy, and her office went to work. At the end of the day, Across Town Movers paid $170,000, with $150,000 going directly to Master Chief Petty Officer Ward and $20,000 going to other servicemembers whose property was also wrongfully auctioned off by Across Town Movers. The settlement also requires the storage company to do a better job going forward. They are now required to check Department of Defense records to see if a customer is serving in the military prior to auctioning off that customer’s storage unit contents.
And just yesterday, U.S. Attorney Duffy’s office announced a $200,000 settlement with Lincoln Military Housing – a company name that is likely familiar to many of you – to resolve allegations that it unlawfully evicted servicemembers from their homes. That same law – the SCRA – requires that if a servicemember tenant is sued for eviction and does not make an appearance in court, the landlord must tell the court whether that tenant is in the military. Lincoln Military Housing filed sworn statements in multiple eviction cases informing the court that the defendant tenants were not servicemembers, when, in fact, they were. This put servicemembers at risk of being evicted without having an opportunity to participate in their case or be represented by a lawyer. Under this important settlement, each servicemember harmed by Lincoln Military Housing’s actions will receive $35,000 and all improper evictions will be vacated.
The department also enforces USERRA, a law that prohibits employment discrimination based on present, past and future military service. This law focuses on making sure a reservist’s civilian job and benefits are waiting after military service. It entitles reservists to return to their civilian employment after completing their military service with the same seniority, status and rate of pay they would have obtained had they not taken leave for their military duties.
Here’s an example: U.S. Navy Reservist Thomas Shea, an ironworker, served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Kuwait. His civilian employer, the Ironworkers District Council, refused to credit his pension and annuity funds for the time he spent serving our country. We got involved, and under the terms of a settlement agreement, Shea received $180,000 for back pension and annuity payments, and will receive monthly pension payments of $2,600.
The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy, and the Justice Department also assists servicemembers and their families who face difficulty voting overseas. We enforce the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which requires states and territories to allow servicemembers to register and vote absentee in elections. For example, last year we filed suit to ensure that military and overseas citizens of Illinois had sufficient time to vote in special elections for vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives. We want to make sure you have the opportunity to vote, no matter where you are in the world.
Finally, I want to tell you a little bit about our efforts to go after a wide range of deceptive trade practices that impact servicemembers, including deception via telemarketing, mortgage fraud, and debt relief scams. For example, a few weeks ago we secured a guilty plea by a guy – Ronald Rodis – who was falsely offering assistance in obtaining home loan modifications to struggling homeowners. After these unwitting homeowners paid a substantial fee to Rodis’ firm, little effort was actually made to help them. In total, Rodis’ firm and a successor company fraudulently obtained more than $9 million from over 1,500 homeowners, including many servicemembers.
Before concluding, I want to highlight the Justice Department’s Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative, which was created by the Attorney General a year and a half ago. The initiative is led by three career Justice Department attorneys who coordinate the department’s work on behalf of servicemembers. All three of these attorneys are here with us today, including the director of the initiative, Silas Darden, who is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserves. The initiative seeks to build upon the department’s enforcement efforts that I’ve just described by sharing information and identifying needs. And it works closely with federal, state and local partners to make sure we know the areas where the Justice Department is most needed and can be most effective. Today, I am pleased to announce that as part of this effort, many of the U.S. Attorneys around the country will designate an attorney in their office to serve as a liaison with the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative. These liaisons will work closely with the local military populations and military legal assistance offices in their district to identify the legal problems local servicemembers are facing. These liaisons will also educate servicemembers and veterans on their legal rights. One such liaison will be based right here in San Diego.
Going forward, the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative and the Department of Justice will continue to work with your JAGs to protect the rights of servicemembers and veterans. But we also urge you to come forward and bring your legal problems to the attention of your legal assistance JAGs and to us. Too often, a violation of the rights of servicemembers goes unreported because victims feel embarrassed or because they think that nothing will happen. But, as you have heard, only when you bring these matters to our attention is it possible for you to get the help you need. Only when we know there is a problem can we work to stop it. If you want to reach the Department of Justice directly, please go to the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative’s website, servicemembers.gov. The website has an online form that will go directly to our staff when filled out. Since launching our online form in March of this year, we have received 219 responses from servicemembers and veterans. All of these responses have received close attention, and many have directly resulted in further action by the Department of Justice.
Thank you again for having me here today. I have been inspired by people like you – ordinary citizens that have volunteered to take on the awesome responsibility of serving and protecting the citizens of the United States of America. I want to recognize you for your commitment and your sacrifice for our country. Thank you for your time and thank you for your service. Now, we would now like to hear from you what concerns and questions you may have for me and my colleagues here today.