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Fighting for Justice and Survival : Africa’s Wildlife
May 9, 2014 Posted by

Courtesy of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division

A delegation of wildlife conservation and environmental officials, as well as nongovernmental leaders, from 13 African nations met today with Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dreher, trial attorneys and environmental crimes prosecutors from the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD). The visitors are participating in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program “Wildlife Conservation: Anti-poaching and anti-trafficking”. Participants learned about U.S. efforts to combat illegal wildlife trafficking and discussed ways to enhance international collaboration to fight the trade. In many parts of Africa, species like the African elephant and the black rhino are threatened with extinction by poachers, often organized and well-armed groups that feed a lucrative international trade in wildlife and wildlife parts.

The Justice Department co-chairs a national task force on wildlife trafficking with the Department of State and Department of the Interior, and with other federal agency partners, all working to carry out the President’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking

Photo of Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dreher and ENRD staff with the African delegation at the Justice Department

Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert G. Dreher and ENRD staff with the African delegation at the Justice Department 

Read more on the Justice Department’s efforts to fight and end the illegal trade in wildlife and the national strategy to combat wildlife trafficking.

POSTED IN: Uncategorized  |  PERMALINK
Holding Accountable Financial Institutions that Knowingly Participate in Consumer Fraud
May 7, 2014 Posted by

Courtesy of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch 

Frauds targeted at consumers threaten to cause significant harm to the American public.  The Justice Department has made it a priority to hold the perpetrators of consumer fraud accountable.  In the past few weeks, we have successfully prosecuted the operators of lottery scams, the promoters of fake business opportunities, and the criminals behind a telemarketing fraud targeting Spanish-speaking customers.  But fraudsters often can’t act alone.  They need access to the banking system to get money from their victims.  And when financial institutions choose to process transactions even though they know the transactions are fraudulent, or willfully ignore clear evidence of fraud, they are profiting from illegal activities as well as breaking federal law. 

That’s why we are proud to highlight an important result in one of the first civil cases we have brought against a financial institution for unlawfully facilitating a fraudulent scheme to take money from consumers’ bank accounts.  On April 25, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina entered a consent order and approved a settlement resolving the department’s complaint against Four Oaks Bank.  According to the department’s complaint, Four Oaks unlawfully allowed third party merchants to work through the bank to defraud consumers.  Four Oaks’ clients included a Texas-based third-party payment processor – a company that acts as an intermediary between a bank and a merchant in a financial transaction, and often provides access to the national payment system to a wide variety of merchants.  At a merchant’s direction, a payment processor will originate a debit transaction against an individual consumer’s bank account, receive the consumer’s money into its own bank account, and transmit the money to its merchant client.  

Four Oaks, according to the complaint, was specifically informed that many of the transactions requested by the third-party payment processor and facilitated by the bank were reported as fraudulent.  Four Oaks received hundreds of notices from consumers’ banks that the people whose accounts were being charged had not authorized a debit transaction originated by the third-party payment processor.  The bank also knew that at least 13 of the merchants served by the third-party payment processor had over 30 percent of the attempted debit transactions returned or charged back, including one merchant with a return rate of over 70 percent.  (A 30 percent rate is more than 20 times the national average.)  And the bank had substantial evidence of efforts to conceal the true identities of the merchants that were serviced by the third-party payment processor.  Nevertheless, according to the department, Four Oaks permitted the third-party payment processor to originate $2.4 billion of debit transactions against consumers’ bank accounts in exchange for more than $850,000 in fees that were paid to the bank.

The consent order approved by the court requires Four Oaks Bank to pay $1 million to the U.S. Treasury as a civil monetary penalty and to forfeit $200,000 to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Consumer Fraud Fund.  It also obligates Four Oaks to comply with a series of measures designed to prevent it from ever again permitting fraudulent merchants access to the national payment system.  Specifically, the order permanently prohibits Four Oaks from providing banking services to any third-party payment processor that serves merchants determined by banking regulators to be high-risk absent a strict regime of investigation and monitoring designed to prevent future consumer fraud.  The Four Oaks case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Sweet of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and Trial Attorneys John W. Burke and James W. Harlow of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch, with assistance from Assistant U.S. Attorney G. Norman Acker, III of the Eastern District of North Carolina.  Investigative assistance was provided by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. 

The result in this case demonstrates that banks and third-party payment processors cannot profit from violating federal law.  Of course, we recognize that most of the businesses that use the banking system are not fraudsters.  We’re committed to ensuring that our efforts to combat fraud do not discourage or inhibit the lawful conduct of these honest merchants.  Our goal in investigations like Four Oaks is simply to enforce the laws that make the financial marketplace work for consumers.

POSTED IN: Civil Division  |  PERMALINK
Staying Involved During National Child Abuse Prevention Month, April 2014
April 23, 2014 Posted by

Courtesy of Karol V. Mason, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs

When he proclaimed April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, President Obama said, “Every child should have every chance in life, every chance at happiness, and every chance at success. Yet tragically, hundreds of thousands of young Americans shoulder the burden of abuse or neglect.” The President urged Americans to remember that we all have a role to play in preventing child abuse and neglect and in helping young victims recover.

Protecting children is a top priority of Attorney General Eric Holder. Since his days as a prosecutor he has recognized the terrible impact of violence, trauma and abuse on children and the importance of coordinating our response. As Deputy Attorney General under Janet Reno, he established “Safe Start,” a program designed to reduce the impact of children’s exposure to violence. When he took office as Attorney General in 2009, he picked up where he left off and launched “Defending Childhood,” an ongoing initiative to improve our understanding of the impact of children’s exposure to violence, turning that knowledge into workable strategies and effective programs.

This work comes at a critical time. A study released in 2009 by our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention showed that an astonishing 60 percent of children in the United States are exposed to some form of violence, crime, or abuse, ranging from brief encounters as witnesses to violent episodes as victims. The consequences of exposure to violence and abuse can lead in the short term to poor performance in school and to drug and alcohol abuse, but far more devastating is the long-term physical and psychological harm to the affected child. Kids who are exposed to violence have higher rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other physical issues. They are at greater risk of future victimization and suicide.

This damage extends beyond the individual children who are affected. We all feel the effects in rising healthcare, criminal justice, and other public costs. This significant public safety problem is fast becoming a serious public health problem – and it requires a wide-ranging response.

The good news is that because children are resilient, intervention and prevention work. OJP’s bureaus are engaged in supporting research that translates into programs and resources for those working with children.

For example, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention helps victims of child abduction and commercial sexual exploitation, and supports mentoring programs for tribal youth and faith-based and community initiatives.
The National Institute of Justice’s Violence Against Women and Family Violence Research and Evaluation program promotes the safety of women and family members and aims to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system’s response to these crimes.

The Office for Victims of Crime has highlighted the issue with its remarkable series of videos, “Through Our Eyes: Children, Violence and Trauma” and this year will fund demonstration sites to establish a consistent, coordinated response to child and youth victims and their families and caregivers.

We are also collecting information on the needs of underserved populations. Because relatively little is known about violence against American Indian and Alaska Native children, and because what we do know is of great concern, the Attorney General appointed a new task force specifically to study this issue. That task force is now holding hearings throughout the country, addressing the impact of child sexual abuse, the intersection between child maltreatment and domestic violence, and the impact of the juvenile justice system.

This month also gives us a chance to thank those already committed to helping children in need. Recently I was privileged to speak to over 1,000 people at the National Symposium on Child Abuse about their work at child advocacy centers, where children who are brought into contact with our child protective and justice systems are getting the services they need to deal with the trauma they have experienced, such as critical medical care and coordinated and efficient case management.

Eliminating child abuse is a huge challenge. Thousands of children in communities across America need us – all of us – to advocate for their future, to determine whether it will be one darkened by the violence and abuse they have experienced or one lit by care and hope. As the President said in his proclamation, “Our nation thrives when we recognize that we all have a stake in each other. This month and throughout the year, let us come together — as families, communities, and Americans — to ensure every child can pursue their dreams in a safe and loving home.”

I encourage everyone to join in dialogues and community events that put our children front and center in our lives. For Office of Justice Programs resources on this topic please visit http://ojp.gov/, and for direct help addressing child abuse contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.

Honoring the Earth, April 22, 2014
April 22, 2014 Posted by
Courtesy of Robert Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division
 
Once a year, on April 22nd, people all over the world stop to show reverence for the Earth and the life it contains.  For the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD), for the past 11 years running, we have honored that tradition with a day of service by continuing working alongside our partners, Washington Parks & People, at Marvin Gaye Park in Washington, DC.  Over the years, the division’s employees have devoted thousands of hours planting trees in the area, and building trails, gardens, and a new tree nursery at the park’s Community Greening Center.
 
We also honor those whose commitment to the Earth is demonstrated in their work to protect the environment, not just on Earth Day, but every day: the aquatic biologists, park and forest rangers, fishery managers, and wildlife conservationists who protect life and its habitat across the world; the scientists, policy experts and lawyers who set environmental standards and write regulations to protect the public health; the sanitation engineers, technicians, recyclers and alternative energy developers who strive to keep mankind’s footprint on the planet sustainable; and the teachers who nurture our children’s love and wonder for nature.
 
And I want to honor all my colleagues in ENRD, who work quietly but passionately every day to protect the balance of life on this planet, to ensure compliance with our nation’s laws that protect clean air, water and land, to defend the authority and policy decisions of federal land managers who are the stewards of this nation’s natural treasures, to protect endangered species, marine mammals, and migratory birds, to vindicate the rights and heritage of Native Americans, to vigorously defend our client agencies while respecting the fundamental right of American citizens to obtain judicial review of government actions affecting their interests, and to protect the rights of all Americans, of every race, ethnicity, and economic status, to clean air, water and land and equal opportunity to be heard in decisions affecting their lives.
 
In all of this, you honor the Earth, so in a sense every day is Earth Day.  But it is still a precious thing to step away from our work and our workplace on this special day, and come out here to feel the sun on our heads and the soil in our hands as we simply cherish the Earth we work so hard to protect all year long.
 
Deputy Attorney General James Cole assists Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert Dreher in planting a dogwood tree at the Marvin Gaye Park Community Greening Center in Washington.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole assists Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert Dreher in planting a dogwood tree at the Marvin Gaye Park Community Greening Center in Washington.

Employees of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division join volunteers from Washington Parks & People in planting garden beds at the Greening Center on Earth Day 2014.

Employees of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division join volunteers from Washington Parks & People in planting garden beds at the Greening Center on Earth Day 2014.

Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable Toolkit Launches at White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice
April 22, 2014 Posted by

What does civil legal aid have to do with preventing homelessness among veterans and securing a job?  And what does the Federal Government have to do with civil legal aid?  Often times, a lot.  

Andy’s” 10-year-old felony conviction prevented him from pursuing his hopes of securing a state license to become a New York Licensed Practical Nurse.  The Fortune Society, a grantee of U.S. Department of Labor’s Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Program, referred Andy to MFY Legal Services in New York.  His legal aid lawyer helped Andy obtain out-of state criminal court records, gather proof of rehabilitation and represented him at the initial investigative interview.  The result was a successful license application and a job. 

Thanks to Supportive Services for Veterans Families program funding, the LSC-supported Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles helped “Jake,” a veteran experiencing homelessness who had spent many months moving from shelter to shelter, apply for VA benefits.  The VA granted his request for a pension and provided him with medical care and a housing subsidy.  Now Jake lives in a duplex and has reunited with his son. 

These are just two case studies showing why, in July 2012, the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC) and the U.S. Department of Justice launched the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR or Roundtable) to raise awareness about how civil legal aid helps advance a wide range of federal objectives by promoting access to health and housing, education and employment, family stability and community well-being.  Associate Attorney General Tony West and Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council Tonya Robinson are co-chairs for LAIR, which is made up of 17 collaborating federal partners.  

Staffed by the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ), an office Attorney General Eric Holder launched four years ago to help spearhead national efforts to expand access to civil legal aid and criminal indigent defense, ATJ launched a new LAIR Toolkit at the April 8, 2014, White House and Legal Services Corporation Forum on Increasing Access to Justice. 

As explained in the Welcome Message from Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz, “[t]he Roundtable’s work is premised on the recognition that applying the power of legal services to meet federal objectives creates more opportunities for Americans to grab the next rung on the ladder out of poverty… In short, legal services can transform lives for the better, and there is a role for the Federal Government to play in helping to ensure access to these critical services.”  

The online resource guide contains useful information about civil legal aid and the intersection with many federal objectives.  Associate Attorney General West told the White House event attendees, “You’ll see a series of what we call ‘case studies’ on how civil legal aid supports federal efforts—for example, to help people stay housed, prevent domestic violence, and keep kids in school.  The wealth of information you’ll find at the Federal Agency Resources tab includes a listing by agency of selected grants and program activities for which civil legal aid providers are an eligible grantee, sub-grantee or partner, along with other examples of federal government activities that engage civil legal aid.” 

ATJ will continue to post case studies on new topics throughout the year, along with updates to the Federal Agency Resources page.  Some of the case studies already in queue include how Civil Legal Aid Supports Federal Efforts to help prevent elder abuse and consumer fraud, and how it helps people with disabilities, children and families, immigrants, Native Americans, and victims of disaster.  Ideas about the new LAIR Toolkit content can be shared with the Access to Justice Initiative staff by writing to LAIR@usdoj.gov.

Reentry and the Affordable Care Act
April 17, 2014 Posted by

This post is courtesy of Associate Attorney General Tony West

Earlier this month, at a conference hosted by the Community Oriented Correctional Health Services and the journal Health Affairs, I had the opportunity to speak with a distinguished group of policymakers, researchers and health care and criminal justice professionals about the implications of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for those under correctional supervision.

The fact is that the Affordable Care Act holds the promise of expanding health care coverage to uninsured Americans, and potentially opens Medicaid enrollment to some 15 million low-income adults, including the millions of individuals who come into contact with our criminal justice system, of whom upwards of 90 percent are uninsured.

This moment is an opportunity, uniquely positioned at the intersection of public health and public safety, to reform correctional health care, to improve the health of our communities and to enhance public safety.  It is an opportunity born of necessity, as leaders across the political spectrum seek ways to better align our criminal justice investments with outcomes that actually make us safer.

At the Department of Justice, we understand that public health and public safety often walk hand-in-hand; that the public policy investments we make yield the greatest returns when they reflect the importance of that connection; and that key to making our communities safer is reducing recidivism by improving reentry, which in turn means focusing on the physical and mental health of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

We know that the incarcerated population carries substantially higher rates of medical, psychiatric and substance abuse problems than the general population.  Rates of communicable diseases are higher among inmates; an estimated 39 to 43 percent suffer from one or more chronic health conditions; and men and women in this population suffer three times the rate of mental illness and four times the rate of substance abuse problems as compared to the general public.

Fortunately, we have a path forward.

We know that health care coverage and access to adequate health services can decrease the risk of individuals becoming involved with the criminal justice system in the first place.  Moreover, when individuals do come into contact with the justice system, we can dramatically improve the odds for successful reentry if we address their health and mental health needs once they enter correctional facilities and ensure continuity of care once they leave.  The Affordable Care Act, primarily through its Medicaid expansion provisions and parity for mental health and substance abuse treatment, provides us with this unique opportunity to reduce recidivism while improving public health.  Access to these benefits can be a critical factor in the success or failure of incarcerated persons upon their release.

Much of the work being done by the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which is chaired by the Attorney General, focuses on reducing the collateral consequences of incarceration and increasing access to employment, treatment and civic participation.  With our Reentry Council partners at the Department of Health and Human Services, we are jointly supporting a three-year pilot project to test the efficacy of enrolling prison and jail inmates in Medicaid prior to release, and we’re tracking usage, employment and recidivism outcomes along the way.

At the Department of Justice, we will require halfway houses in the federal system—known as residential reentry centers (RRCs)—to offer standardized treatment to prisoners with mental health and substance abuse issues.  Once fully-implemented, these services will be available to the approximately 30,000 inmates who are released through halfway houses each year, helping to promote consistency and continuity of care between federal prisons and community-based facilities.

This month, our Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance released a new solicitation requesting proposals to help states and local jurisdictions maximize Medicaid and marketplace resources on behalf of justice-involved individuals.  We are looking for innovative ideas to aid in all aspects of health care planning, from diversion alternatives and intake screening at the front-end, to reentry programs at the back end.  We want to be able to provide in-depth assistance to select jurisdictions on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as well as policy guidance for all states and localities.

Of course, we must do more.

We must make it standard practice to assess the health care needs of individuals as soon as they come into the criminal justice system, being thoughtful about our options and basing decisions on individual needs.

We should be willing to consider detention alternatives such as drug and mental health courts, and we should make health care enrollment part of the intake and discharge processes for all inmates.

We must develop partnerships between correctional facilities and community health programs to promote information exchange and ensure continuity of care.

And we must target our actions to those who need services the most.  The Affordable Care Act gives us the chance to provide those with the highest risks and the greatest needs access to quality health care in a way that promotes public health and safety while strengthening community and respecting individual dignity.

 
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