Last week a story that originally aired on News10 in Stockton, California caught my eye. I was not the only one to pounce on the clip about the alleged Department of Education's S.W.A.T. Kenneth Wright had his door destroyed at approximately 6 AM. The story also sparked a curious response from a reader.
Recap of the Stockton events
[Note: If you've been following this story closely, skip ahead to the section entitled, "Reader's Curious Remarks"]
After his door was broken down, Wright was then handcuffed in his boxers and shoved into the back of a patrol car for 6 hours. News10 initially showed Wright saying, "pay back your student loans [or the Department of Education's S.W.A.T. team will break down your door]." The clip has since been changed, and the news station rewrote the story and focused on the question of excessive force.
It turns out the agents had a warrant for Wright's estranged wife. Wright claims he has no criminal record and has since hired an attorney.
Wright's children, ages 3, 9, 11 were also at home when this incident occurred. (UPDATE: The original story mistakenly stated that his children were 3, 7, and 11).
AEM was one of many blogs to break the story and spread the news about Wright's experience. I followed the updates from the station and exchanged emails with them. In addition, I wrote a piece for USA Today about the incident and also spoke with a Press Officer at the Department of Education. (Links below are listed in chronological order and show the way in which the story unfolded).
SparkAction.org, FutureMajority, and Crooks & Liars picked up my work and also commented on my analysis. I want to thank those outlets and groups for providing their readers with information about the situation.
Reader's Curious Remarks
On June 9th at 11:16 PM, a reader responded to my piece, "Viral Wildfires: Terrified Debtors Spread The Word About Department of Education's SWAT Team," and was surprised by my response to this show of enforcement. It is my view that the agents used excessive force in this situation.
Here's what they said (truncated version):
Cryn, you have been a consistent voice citing the lack of oversight of the financial aid programs by federal officials, including at Educ. Dept. and FSA. One would think that, of anyone out there, you would be the one cheering this aggressive raid loudly at the top of lungs. For months you have been saying that the Educ. Dept. is essentially captive of the educational sector and has completely dropped the ball on oversight, enforcement and compliance -- essentially letting postsecondary institutions run wild, without regulation. Whether it is for-profit or non-profit colleges, the lack of enforcement has been a running theme.
This is what enforcement looks like. One of the major focuses is ginned-up scams to obtain Pell Grants and Stafford loans. Granted, there is probably too much focus on $5 million schemes, rather than $500 million schemes. That is political reality, though, to go after those who don't have lobbyists backing them up in Washington. However, there is certainly never going to be the move on the large potatoes when the blogosphere is ridiculing even the most basic enforcement efforts.
Surely, borrowers would be much better off if the Educ. Dept. had put a top 10 college and a top 10 lender out of business in 2005. While a few hundred students and borrowers would likely have had their lives disrupted for a semester or two, the lives of millions of students and borrowers could have been brightened in the years subsequent, as colleges and lenders cleaned up their act, motivated by the fear of aggressive enforcement.
To get a historically politically-weak agency up to where it can effectively police the wrongdoers, whether large institutions or small gangs of financial aid scam artists, the organizational prestige needs to be raised to the level of agencies such as Labor (OSHA, etc.), DoD, DHS, Treasury, FBI, and so on [my emphasis].
To accomplish your stated goals, what is needed is 'viral wildfire' supporting aggressive raids, not ridiculing them . . . A cursory review of the last couple decades of OIG semiannual reports would indicate a consistent effort to move against the financial aid scam artists, including those who embezzle federal funds. Many of these perps were not attempting to attend college; the programs were simply a source of illgotten cash for them. What is wrong with attempting to arrest and prosecute them? The enforcement efforts against small for-profits have also been consistent. It would certainly be better if the Educ. Dept. and FSA also were as tough on larger institutions, including colleges, guarantors and lenders, but why throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon all enforcement efforts?
Where to begin? For starters, there is no reason why I should be applauding this action. That would be like saying that if the Feds somehow broken down the door of some banker from Wall Street and, let's say, eventually arrested him for fraud, we should understand this to be some sort of victory. Meanwhile, business as usual continues on Wall Street and everyone continues to be royally screwed by an unjust system. Unless a citizen is armed and threatening to kill people, there is no reason whatsoever for this show of force. That is why so many people were outraged. And I frankly don't care if Wright is part of a larger group of people embezzling money or involved in other fraudulent activities. He shouldn't have been treated like that, and his children shouldn't have been subjected to that inappropriate show of force.
The writer clearly believes that the Education Department is too weak to take on the powerful and the way to build up strength is to go after the small fry first, as if that is going to scare the big institutions and lenders. Others might say that going after only the little scams just emboldens the big ones.
The writer also is jumping ahead of the known facts. Maybe this is indeed small-fry fraud, but that was not how it was first reported by the television station and why it got so much publicity. For a day or two it looked as if it were a collection effort. That is precisely why so many people were drawn to the story, and expressed a great deal of fear about the possibility of the same thing happening to them. It is not a great leap to think that collectors could come and break down a door at 6 in the morning.
Here's another take. Let's assume this reader has or does work for the Department of Education. (They certainly sound like an insider of sorts - at least to me). If this is an insider writing to me, it shows that the Department internally does not think it can effectively enforce the law against the politically connected, and may even have given up trying.
"Pay your debt or else! SWAT Team Visits Loan Defaulter -- UPDATED," Crooks and Liars, Nicole Belle, June 9, 2011